The music of George Gershwin remains perennially popular with performers and audiences alike, and his life and work are vividly illustrated in ‘Classic Gershwin’, a new words and music production with actress Susan Porrett and acclaimed Gershwin interpreter, pianist Viv McLean.
It is a mistake to think of Gershwin purely as a composer of “jazz” (a term he in fact disliked, preferring the term “swing” to describe his jazz-inspired music). His musical tastes and influences were wide, from Bach to Strasinsky and Schoenberg. He was particularly influenced by the French composers of the early twentieth-century, notably Maurice Ravel, who in turn was most intrigued by Gershwin’s work. Gershwin’s great skill was his ability to manipulate different forms of music into his own unique musical voice.
‘Classic Gershwin’, the third words and music collaboration between Susan Porrett and Viv McLean, takes the audience on an exhilarating, foot-tapping journey through Gershwin’s life and music, from his early years in Brooklyn to Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood to his tragically early death from a brain tumour in 1937. Just as in ‘Divine Fire’, Viv and Sue’s moving concert focusing on the life of Chopin and his relationship with Georges Sand, the text of ‘Classic Gershwin’ offers just enough information to continually pique the listener’s attention and brings Gershwin to life with the clever and eclectic interweaving of words and music. Each nugget is illustrated with sensitively-chosen music selections, including Someone to Watch Over Me and the rarely-performed Three Preludes, to Swanee, the song which marked Gershwin’s elevation into the realms of established composer and song-writer, after Al Jolson heard Gershwin play it at a party.
The first half of Classic Gershwin closes with Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s hommage to bustling metropolis of Jazz-Age New York, the city of his home, complete with wailing sirens, honking car horns and the rattle of the subway. The second half focuses on Gershwin’s later life, his growing success and fame, and his work in Hollywood. The description of his failing health (the result of a then-undiagnosed brain tumour) was told with great poignancy, and the concert closed on a tender note, a fitting contrast to the sparkling bravura of the Rhapsody in Blue.
The great appeal of this words and music concert, aside from the wonderful music, played by Viv with great precision, exuberance and musical sensitivity, all underpinned by his pristine technique, is its ability to offer just enough information in the text to keep the listener wanting more. Viv demonstrated that pieces driven by rhythmic vitality and syncopation can still have the most exquisite tonal palette and a magical dynamic range, and the music provided the most delicious interludes, complementing the text at every turn (the musical selections are made between Viv and Sue). The overall effect is a glorious and intriguing celebration of Gershwin’s life and work.
This was the world premiere of this new words and music collaboration and it was rapturously received by the audience at the OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, SW London. Highly recommended.