The Arty Semite

Q&A: Michael Feinstein on the Gershwins and 'Porgy'

By Sheerly Avni

getty images

When Michael Feinstein was in his 20s, he had the good fortune to work as an assistant and archivist for the great Ira Gershwin, who, with his brother George, wrote some of the greatest and most beloved songs in American history. Now a beloved singer in his own right, Feinstein spoke with the Forward about his passion for the Gershwins during a break from his gig performing at Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency in New York.

Sheerly Avni: How much of an impact did Jewish culture have on the Gershwins’ art?

Michael Feinstein: George was more influenced by it than Ira, who told me that he had really very little or no influence of Yiddish theatrical tradition although one of Ira’s favorite jokes is one he included in the score of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “Of Thee I Sing.” When the French ambassador makes an entrance at this moment of the show, [Ira] had the chorus singing these lyrics that are supposed to sound like pidgin French. But instead, they are actually speaking a line of Yiddish: “A vu tik er vay a vou” [Tell me, where does it hurt?], which, for people who speak Yiddish, is just hysterical.

Did they listen to Yiddish music?

Musically, George recognized that ethnic music is mainly all minor key; it all sounds alike. Take “Dark Eyes” [hums]…. That could be Jewish, Yiddish, German, Italian, French…. It’s all that minor key modality. But he did spend a lot of time going to see Yiddish theater and Yiddish musicals. And he also knew the Tomashevskys, and he knew Sholom Secunda, who wrote “Bay mir bistu sheyn.” But I think that because of George’s desire to write a really American music, he included influences from every aspect of what we now call the melting pot.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: porgy and bess, ira gershwin, michael Feinstein, george gershwin, the gershwins and me, fall books 2

The Tortured Genius of Oscar Levant

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy of ASCAP and also courtesy of Amanda Carmel

American pianist Oscar Levant (1906–1972), whose fortieth Yahrzeit was on August 14, was renowned, perhaps distractingly so, for his wit steeped in psychic pain. Born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to an Orthodox Jewish family originally from Russia, Levant was tormented by psychiatric ailments, requiring hospitalizations and medication which he made light of on radio, TV, and in films. The screenwriter Betty Comden (born Basya Cohen), who co-authored some of Levant’s musical classics, including “The Barkleys of Broadway” and “The Band Wagon,” once told me that on the set of the latter film, she made the mistake of asking Levant how his mother was. Levant retorted furiously, “Don’t mention that woman!” and refused to speak to Comden for weeks.

As is obvious from musicals such as “An American in Paris,” Levant was also a highly-trained pianist, whose finest hour was as soloist in a 1944 recording of his friend George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F” with Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. Levant’s long-unavailable recording of the Arthur Honegger “Concertino” conducted by the Hungarian Jewish maestro Fritz Reiner would also merit reprinting.

Not content with keyboard mastery, Levant also studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg in California from 1935 to 1937. Levant originally commissioned Schoenberg’s 1942 Piano Concerto, but those plans went awry, as the pianist explained in “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” (1965), one of his entertaining books, all of which would bear reprinting. Yet Levant’s most individual gift may have been as songwriter and pop music performer, starting as a teenaged pianist in a New York band led by Ben Bernie (born Bernard Anzelevitz). Levant’s own popular songs are memorable, including the 1920s hits “Lovable and Sweet” and “If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain),” the latter recorded by Al Jolson and Fannie Brice.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, Arnold Schoenberg, Betty Comden

Broadway ‘Porgy and Bess’ Rests on Lead Roles

By Stuart Isacoff

MICHAEL J. LUTCH

The avowed intention of director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks in “reimagining” “Porgy and Bess” was to invest the opera with a sensibility that would reach modern audiences and “fully realize the characters.” That is, they hoped to achieve a theatrical authenticity they believed was missing in the original.

Their statements, which included a proposed new “happy” ending for the story, set off a firestorm, much of which has already been covered in the pages of the Forward. The new ending was dropped, though numerous other changes remain. The final result? Judging from a recent performance, the production is terribly flawed, with occasional moments of brilliance supplied by the superb lead actors.

Paulus told Vanity Fair: “What I want is for people to come to it and say, ‘I always knew the music was great, but what a story!’” Yet the beauty of Gershwin’s music has been lost through inept, small-scale rearrangements. Gone are the majesty, richness, and intricate textures of the innovative masterpiece. We are left instead with a kind of pop pap. What’s more, some of the cast members are simply not up to the job; “My Man’s Gone Now” was barely recognizable in Bryonha Marie Parham’s histrionic and imprecise rendering, while the anemic instrumental background robbed us of the original’s gripping adventurousness.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, Suzan-Lori Parks, Stuart Isacoff, Porgy and Bess, Ira Gershwin, Musical Theater, George Gershwin, Diane Paulus

The Arty Semite Guide to Upcoming Concerts

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy of Barrett Vantage Artists, Darla Furlani
Nokuthula Ngwenyama Helping a trio become a quartet for Richard Danielpour’s ‘Inventions on a Marriage.’

Classical music events both before and after Purim (on March 8) focus on dialogues redolent of Yiddishkeit, as New Yorkers and others will discover. On February 10 at Weill Recital Hall pianist Lia Jensen-Abbott will perform Fanny Mendelssohn’s “The Year,” a work inspired by the composer’s relationship with her brother Felix. The Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti described his 1951 “Sonata for solo cello” as: “[a] dialogue. Because it’s like two people, a man and a woman, conversing.” Ligeti’s sonata converses on February 10 at Bargemusic with cellist Nicholas Canellakis.

Then it’s back to Bargemusic on February 18 for another meeting of the minds, with some of the late keyboard dazzler Earl Wild’s “Seven Virtuoso Études on Popular Songs,” after George Gershwin. Played by Olga Vinokur, the “Études” will be complemented by Gershwin’s own “Rhapsody In Blue.”

Dialoguing across the centuries may be witnessed on February 22 at Alice Tully Hall when the UK’s premier Jewish composer/conductor Thomas Adès directs the Britten Sinfonia in his own “Three Studies After [17th century composer] Couperin” as well as his arrangement of the same Frenchman’s keyboard work “Les barricades mistérieuses,” and Adès’s “Violin Concerto (Concentric Paths)” with soloist Pekka Kuusisto.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Simon Rattle, Pekka Kuusisto, Richard Danielpour, Olga Vinokur, Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Ma’alot Quintett, Nicholas Canellakis, Logan Coale, Lia Jensen-Abbott, Jessica Lee, Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson, György Ligeti, György Kurtág, Fanny Mendelssohn, Gilad Cohen, George Gershwin, Felix Mendelssohn, Earl Wild, Dénes Várjon, Arnold Schoenberg, Britten Sinfonia, Couperin, Alexander Fiterstein, András Schiff, Aaron Copland, Thomas Adès

Sondheim’s ‘Porgy’ Complaints Come to the Fringe

By Schuyler Velasco

Dixie Sheridan
Christine Campbell and Greg Horton in ‘Chasing Heaven.’

There is exactly one perceptive sentence of dialogue in “Chasing Heaven,” now playing through August 26 at CSV Flamboyan as part of the 15th Annual New York International Fringe Festival. It comes rather late in the proceedings, when the two main characters, in grudging collaboration on a rewrite of a very familiar-sounding piece of iconic theater, come to an impasse over whether or not to cut a villain dubbed Trout Bait from the revised version. One argues that Trout Bait is a racist and offensive portrayal of Blackness: a lying, gambling boozer. The other points out that, while Trout Bait may be all of those things, the show can’t afford to lose him because “he moves the work along and he gets to sing a lot of great stuff.”

This line gets at the most basic tenet of live theater, and what should separate even the most cerebral, “issues”-minded work from a debate in a freshman “Race and Diversity” lecture: A play is, above all else, a story. It helps immensely if that play also has characters interesting enough to make an audience care about whatever story that is. This, unfortunately, is a concept that “Chasing Heaven” fails to grasp, making the bit about Trout Bait memorable only for making me desperately wish it were heeded.

The play chronicles the creative struggle of Kinshasa “Tree” Morton (Christine Campbell), a Pulitzer Prize-winning black novelist commissioned to rewrite “Chasing Heaven,” a broadly drawn, dialect-heavy black folk opera from the 1930s, and make it more palatable to modern audiences. Along the way, she is haunted by the ghost of show’s creator, famed Tin Pan Alley composer/lyricist Joshua Gerwitz (Greg Horton), who is ticked off by the way Morton is tampering with his most famous work. The timeline of the plot shifts between Gerwitz writing what he originally titled “Chasing Hebben” in 1935 and an artistically blocked Morton pacing around a skeletally furnished room of the Gerwitz estate in 2008. These chronological jumps couldn’t be more straightforward; nevertheless, an enthusiastic “curator” (Daniel Carlton) is on hand to announce each one, in case anyone gets confused.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Stephen Sondheim, Schuyler Velasco, Porgy and Bess, New York Fringe Festival, Leah Maddrie, George Gershwin, Chasing Heaven, Theater, Workshop Theater Company

Arnold Schoenberg and the American Dream

By Benjamin Ivry

Detail of 'Self-Portrait' by Arnold Schoenberg, Courtesy of Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna

Coming to America is normally shorthand for the opening of opportunity: apparently not for Arnold Schoenberg. Commentators on modern music have long undervalued the Vienna-born composer Arnold Schoenberg’s years in America, from 1934 until his death in 1951.

Admittedly, there were some disappointments, such as when the Guggenheim Foundation notoriously refused to grant Schoenberg a fellowship, citing a then-extant age limit for applicants. Yet overall, Schoenberg’s last years were fulfilled and productive, as “Schoenberg’s New World: The American Years” by Sabine Feisst, out in March from Oxford University Press, establishes.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Sabine Feisst, Louis Gruenberg, Hans Rosbaud, Joseph Achron, George Gershwin, Arnold Schoenberg

Out and About: PEN Literary Awards; Schwartz's Deli, the Musical

By Ezra Glinter

Wiki Commons/LOC
Today would have been George Gershwin’s 112th birthday.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Schwartz's, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Pen American Center, Out and About, Michael Scammell, Martin Cohen, Jewish Manuscript Project, Jeremiah Lockwood, Jazz Talmud, Jacob Siskind, JBooks, Howl!, George Gershwin, Fantasia, Eric Drooker, Eliot Spitzer, Eddie Fisher, Don DeLillo, David Mamet, David Lehman, Allen Ginsberg, Antonina Pirozhkova, Arthur Koestler, Breslov, Client 9

The Assaf Kehati Trio Jazzes Up The Beehive and The Blue Note

By Benjamin Ivry

Courtesy Assaf Kehati

Music lovers preoccupied with the question of “whither Jewish jazz?” will want to attend the June 19 performance by the Assaf Kehati Trio at Boston’s The Beehive, in anticipation of their scheduled sets at New York’s The Blue Note on August 1.

The trio consists of guitarist Assaf Kehati, an Israeli-born resident of Boston, veteran drummer Billy Hart (who is something of a legend for his performances and recordings with McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Stan Getz), and bass player Noam Wiesenberg, an Israeli graduate of the Berklee College of Music. The trio’s repertoire includes Kehati and Hart’s own compositions, the work of neglected songwriters like Arthur Altman, as well as decidedly non-neglected composers like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: AKJazz, A View From My Window, Arthur Altman, Asaf Kehati Trio, Assaf Kehati, Avishai Cohen, Berklee College of Music, Billy Hart, George Gershwin, Herbie Hancock, Hillel Zori, Irving Berlin, Jazz, Kansas City Symphony, Matisyahu, McCoy Tyner, Menachem Weisenberg, Music, Noam Wiesenberg, Omer Avital, Rimon School of Jazz, Stan Getz, The Beehive, The Blue Note, Udi Shlomo, Zohar Fresco

Heard Fresh: Innovative Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch

By Benjamin Ivry

The Cincinnati-born Jewish jazz pianist Fred Hersch, who will be giving a much-anticipated solo concert on March 31 at New York’s Weill Recital Hall, has been scaling barriers for decades.

One of the few openly gay musicians in the surprisingly closeted and macho world of jazz, Hersch has also been HIV-positive since 1986, conquering many related health issues since then. A prolific recording artist for such labels as Nonesuch and Sunnyside, Hersch cheerfully told one interviewer: “I was raised Jewish, Americanized Reform Jew, so I guess that makes me a ‘Jew-Bu’!”

Read more


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: The Surrey With the Fringe on Top, Thelonius Monk, Sunnyside, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Pannonica, Nonesuch, Nic Rothschild, Music, Let Yourself Go, Jazz, Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, HIV, I Loves You Porgy, George Gershwin, Fred Hersch, Cincinnati, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, A Cock-Eyed Optimist




Find us on Facebook!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.