Friday, November 15, 2013

George Gershwin was Incredible

Though he only lived 38 years, the remarkable music and genius of George Gershwin will last forever. I was reminded of that again last night!
by Charlie Leck

I had a great date with my wife last night. She took me to a jazz concert – Gershwin in Paris. We had a wonderful time. I don’t know how it could have been better. The music was glorious and was provided by musicians from 11 years of age (Emma Taggart) to the remarkable Irv Williams at 94 and still making mellow and beautiful on his saxophone. It was one of those evenings that just went by so very, very quickly. I got lost in it and was reminded again of the genius of George Gershwin and his brother, Ira.

I was also reminded again that, given the brevity of his life, Gershwin composed the music for an enormous number (15) of Broadway musicals. Among them were…

Nice Work If You Can Get It
Strike Up the Band
My One and Only
Show Girl
Lady Be Good

Of course, he and his brother, two years older, were probably most famous for their opera, Porgy and Bess (1935). It’s amazing to realize that this particular work was a commercial failure. Today, it is regarded, world wide, as the finest of all the strictly American operas.

Among a number of orchestral pieces, George Gershwin is most famous for American in Paris and the remarkable Rapsody in Blue.

In Brooklyn, Gershwin was born into a Russian Jewish heritage. Thirty-nine years later he died in Beverly Hills, California, of a brain tumor. If you were to take a look at his creative achievements in that period of time you, as I did, would shake your head in wonder and disbelief. The man had style in his living and he had a particularly identifiable style in his music. His love for jazz was deep and he carried it over into his classical compositions and his creations for the opera and Broadway theater as well.

My purpose here, however, is to write of last night’s experience and to tell you that the concert sponsored and staged by the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was a grand and lovely success. It is part of the Arboretum’s series called Four Seasons of Music. You can find out more about the series by looking here on the Arboretum’s web site. Don’t dilly-dally, however, because each of the four concerts in the series will sell out.

Bruce Henry was the main vocalist last night and he is a clear professional with a brilliant and well trained voice that has a remarkable range. He’s performed with the best because he’s one of the best. Denis Evstuhim and Ivan Konev were the duet pianists and they were brilliant. Both of them have classical Russian training on the piano. They play delicately, but with rare and appropriate power.

But there were some startling and remarkable surprises in store for the audience last night and the full-house crowd responded enthusiastically and cheerfully to both of them. After a very casual preconcert performance by accordionist, Dan Newton, and a few piano and vocal presentations of some of Gershwin’s American in Paris composition (while a very nice photographic exhibit of Paris was splashed on the walls behind the performers), the first surprise was presented.

Irv Williams
94 year old Irv Williams was introduced to the audience and he came delicately out on to the stage carrying a saxophone that seemed as big as he was. This master and terribly popular local performer out did himself. What crystal clear and remarkable music he makes. Williams is “a legend of the big band era.” He’s played with and for some of the best jazz vocalists in American musical history, including the legends Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn. He thrilled the crowd. He may not be as powerful as he once was, and he needs a little time to get from here to there when he comes out on the stage, but, when he sits down with his shiny, gold instrument in front of him, he makes very mellow when he begins to play.

Emma Taggart
I was personally blown away by the piano presentation by 11 year old Emma Taggart. She played two pieces by Debussy, who had such a remarkable impact on Gershwin’s skills, and then Three Prelude by Gershwin. Well, I sensed that the audience was in awe. Taggart played like a well-honed and experience professional who had been doing this for decades. She was delicate and light on the keyboard, but with great definition and strength. She began playing at age four and at age nine won the International Piano Festival Performance Award at the International Music Festival in Italy. She has a neat little list of other international and national awards she’s also pulled down. I just can’t imagine!

John Blanda
Then, just for fun, you can throw in the post-concert performance by a local high school student by the name of John Blanda. A piano student over in Maplewood, he presented a solo piano performance of his own arrangement and interpretation of the music of George Gershwin. What a treat! Strong, powerful and delicate, all at the same time, Blanda was extraordinary and was the perfect exclamation mark on a really great evening.

The entire event, which began with some lovely starters and a very nice wine bar, was beautifully planned and very comfortable.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is a very special place and we’re more than proud to be members and contributors to this important and beautiful institution. Thanks to all of you folks over there for a fabulous evening. If you’d like, pay them a visit on-line.

 I took this snapshot in the summer of 2008 when we took a significant walk through the huge arboretum property. It is a remarkable way to spend a nice summer or autumn day. There is a tour vehicle that allows one to ride through large parts of the park, but the best way to see it is on foot. The big central building on the grounds houses a really good restaurant and a number of exhibits and art work that is really worth taking a look at.

This project of the University of Minnesota in one of our state's treasures and we are always urging friends to visit and join.


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  1. I loved Gershwin and memorized Rhapsody when I was about 11 or 12. He is one of my favorite composers too and remember the old movie about his life. I'm sure you had a very enjoyable evening.

  2. Couldn't agree with you more. Imagine the music that could have been if only he had a few more years.