Pops honors Gershwin's range of contributions
This weekend, the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops salutes George Gershwin, who started as a teenage piano player on Tin Pan Alley, became nationally popular for his songs, Broadway shows and jazz-influenced concert music, and died at age 38 in Hollywood, where he had gone to write for the movies.
Pops principal conductor Marvin Hamlisch will lead the program that includes "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris" and selections from Gershwin's musicals and opera "Porgy and Bess."
Hamlisch is particularly excited to be performing "Rhapsody in Blue" -- the piece that made Gershwin famous -- with pianist Kevin Cole as the soloist playing a part Gershwin wrote for himself to perform.
Cole has done "an incredible amount of research into the way Gershwin actually played," Hamlisch says. "When Gershwin played (it) originally, it wasn't all notated yet. It was in his head, and he'd recorded it that way before he wrote out the published piano parts.
Hamlisch says one of the thing he notices about Gershwin's piano playing, preserved on many recordings, is that he played a very high-society, homogenized jazz, and that his harmony is a hybrid of classical and jazz elements.
"It's not typical. It's his version, what he's comfortable with at the piano," says Hamlisch, who is an excellent pianist.
When Gershwin died in 1937, Irving Berlin's comment that Gershwin was the only songwriter who became a composer, was among the flood of tributes. Hamlisch fleshes out Berlin's idea by noting that in addition to "writing 32-bar tunes, what a tunesmith does, Gershwin had the ability to write for the big form. The Concerto in F is the winner, the tops for this. I don't think he was consciously trying to do something revolutionary. He sat down and wrote spontaneously. That's why nobody followed him in that world, except for (Aaron) Copland in his way of Americana outdoorsman."
Hamlisch believes Gershwin became a composer for bigger canvasses because his great facility made it easier for him to think orchestrally.
The Pops principal conductor studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, but admits he was not schooled in the orchestra until he started conducting.
"I was a piano major and worked on piano stuff," Hamlisch says. "I hardly ever got involved even with a Beethoven symphony. It was not something they pushed."
Selecting what to include in a Gershwin program is a big challenge because the choice is also what to exclude.
"The most amazing thing about Gershwin, when you look at his output it boggles the mind. The guy was writing all the time," Hamlisch says.
'S'Wonderful! S'Marvelous! George Gershwin''S'Wonderful! S'Marvelous! George Gershwin'
Featuring: Kevin Cole, piano; Caitlin Glennon, vocalist; Robert Bonfiglio, harmonica; All-Star College Chorus, Robert Page, director; Pittsburgh Symphony Pops, Marvin Hamlisch, conductor
When: 7:30 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Heinz Hall, Sixth Street and Penn Avenue, Downtown
Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org