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PSO gives tour of ‘force of nature’ Gershwin

Mark Kanny
ptrTKhamlisch
Jason Cohn
Marvin Hamlisch. Photo by Jason Cohn

America’s musical debt to George Gershwin remains immeasurable 74 years after his death. You could count up all the great songs and musicals and add the concert pieces, such as “Rhapsody in Blue,” and still not have the measure of the man.

The synthesis he achieved with different musical styles – all with his immediately recognizable personality – remains unequaled to this day. Yet, beyond even this, he inspires a rare degree of affection for the vibrant personality he was – all too briefly because he was 38 when he died – and the example he set personally as well as professionally.

“One of the reasons I do Pops concerts is because of George Gershwin,” says Marvin Hamlisch. “Right after ‘A Chorus Line,’ an agent said, ‘I think you should do symphonic concerts with your music.’ I didn’t know. Then he told me Gershwin did them. I thought, if it’s good enough for Gershwin, it’s good enough for me.”

Hamlisch will conduct soloists and the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops in “Here to Stay – The Gershwin Experience” at concerts Thursday through Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Gershwin family home movies will be shown during the concerts.

The Pops’ principal conductor, a very successful composer himself, can put his finger on some elements that contributed to Gershwin’s musical personality, but genius remains a mystery.

“I think he came at a time when the whole jazz world was really popping with a lot of great composers,” Hamlisch says. “He had this uncanny ability to fuse the things he knew were part and parcel of the age with a kind of classical knowledge. Where did he get that knowledge? If you remember, when he started out, even his family didn’t know he could play until the piano arrived (at their apartment).”

The program Hamlisch has put together will feature two-time Grammy winner Sylvia McNair performing many of the Gershwin songs that touch or excite the heart in ways that seem distinctively American, such as ” ‘S Wonderful,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “Strike Up the Band.”

Pianist Kevin Cole will be the soloist in “Rhapsody in Blue,” the piece that made Gershwin’s name in the concert hall when he was 25. Cole is widely regarded as combining virtuosity with show-biz flair in a way very similar to Gershwin’s own performing style.

The concert will be enhanced by another important element. Performances by tap dancer Ryan VanDenBoom fit the Gershwin world perfectly. Fred Astaire and the composer were good friends. They even recorded a song together, Gershwin playing piano and Astaire tap dancing. They also recorded songs with Astaire singing.

That Gershwin did Pops concerts is, in fact, far down the list of achievements that makes Hamlisch regard the composer with awe.

“I think Gershwin was this kind of dynamo,” he says. “When I look at how much he did, how much he wrote, it boggles the mind how he did it. The difference is he wrote whether he was hired to or not. Most composers write because they’re hired to write. He just kept going.”

When Hamlisch reads about Gershwin’s love of tennis, and his love of parties and other socializing, not to mention traveling, he wonders where the composer found the time for even the mechanical work of writing down all those notes.

“He was a force of nature,” Hamlisch says. “I think the analogy to Mozart is the closest you can get – the unbelievable passion to keep writing.”

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7877.

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