Last night my wife and I had the pleasure of attending a one-man performance of George Gershwin's life by an accomplished musician, Hershey Felder, at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. I had long regarded Gershwin as America's best musician, and I was pleased that I remembered nearly all the lyrics to his music. He and his brother Ira were quite a prolific duo. They wrote much more than I could remember at first. But as each song or composition came alive, I recalled nearly every one of them. It was only at that moment that I realized George Gershwin had lived and died before I was born.
One-man performances can fall flat on their face if the performer is not up to the task. Felder was up to the task. He was not only a master at the piano, he proved to be an accomplished story teller as well. (Why not? He's married to A. Kim Campbell, the former prime minister of Canada, and a lady 21 years his senior. How does a novice storyteller pull that off?). Felder weaved together story after story of the Gershwin brothers in their climb to fame--in spite of the critics who apparently were not kind to two Jewish brothers who could compose circles around the best of the best in their day. As an example, one critic called "An American in Paris" (a true masterpiece!) so "pedestrian." To which Felder replied "Well, yes, George wrote it while walking around in the streets of Paris."
Musicians of the calibre of Sergiy Rachmaninoff and Maurice Ravel instantly saw and heard the genius in this young kid from Brooklyn. Gershwin is said to have sought to study under Ravel who declined to take him on this advice: "Why would you want to be a second rate Ravel when you are already a first rate Gershwin?" Ravel would later lament that he would probably be remembered only for "Bolero,' a composition that he said he hated. He was right (about his remembrance, not about Bolero. It is still impossible to make love to it in spite of Dudley Moore's comment in the movie, "10." Anyone who has ever tried and succeeded is a candidate for the title, Superman).
Felder played "Rhapsody in Blue" from beginning to end. It was the first time I had heard it in its entirety. Apparently George heard the entire piece in his head on a train ride from New York to Boston. He hastily scrawled it into musical format right before he played it with Paul Whiteman's orchestra in a program that featured 26 composers. His place in the program was next to last right before Edward Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance," in a theatre with no air conditioning. Whiteman instantly adopted it as his theme song. I was so choked up by Felder's rendition I could hardly sing along to "Embraceable You," the song that followed. In fact it took a couple of sing alongs before my wife realized I was still the best singer in the house.
(Modesty is still one of my strongest attributes).
Now, I had never been a big fan of "Porgy and Bess," although I had heard many Blacks call it the heart and soul of their culture and the essence of their plight in America. I had no idea how two Jewish kids from Brooklyn could ever have accomplished such a feat as capturing the Black experience better than the Blacks could. But music is something that comes from the soul, not the intellect. And Felder made the point again and again: the Gershwin brothers regarded their music as the sum and substance of their being. Take them away, and all that is left is the music. And for the first time, I also realized that Porgy and Bess was not just an opera--it was also a prayer. When the audience was asked to sing along to "Summertime," there were no overpowering voices at all in the audience. Nobody dared to step outside the prayerful moment that had been created. In total reverence, and with a solemnity I had never before experienced, a group of 1000 unrelated individuals sang with the sweetness of angels:
an' the livin' is easy
fish are jumpin'...
an' the cotton is high.
Your daddy's rich
an' your mamma's good lookin'...
so hush little baby
don't you cry.
One of these mornins'
you're gonna rise up singin'
you're gonna spread your wings
an' take to the sky.
But till that mornin'
there's nuthin' can harm you
with mama and daddy