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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How a machinist named Martin Cohen became the pre-eminent photographer of New York’s Latin music scene.
Montreal’s Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen is set to be turned into a musical.
Is it time to update the Hebrew alphabet for the Internet age?
Read an interview with Allen Ginsberg collaborator and “Howl!” illustrator Eric Drooker.
The trailer for “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” is now out.
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.
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’!”