By George, half a century on it’s still a good thing when Gershwin music is front and center. During the next few days two Southern California orchestras are turning their focus to brothers George and Ira.
On Saturday, Michael Feinstein conducts the Pasadena Pops in what promises to be a delve-deep inside their canon. Then Tuesday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s program at the Hollywood Bowl features two of George Gershwin’s orchestral scores, “Cuban Overture” and “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture.”
Gershwin music played by local orchestras taps into a very poignant moment in Southern California music history. In February 1937, George Gershwin led musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as other players, in two benefit concerts for a local musicians fund.
It was one of the rare occasions when the composer conducted in public.
Additionally, he soloed on piano playing some of his own works. At the keyboard during the playing of his “Concerto in F,” Gershwin made a puzzling mistake, leaving out a simple passage. Pianist and bon vivant Oscar Levant, a close friend, was in the audience and afterward said he was shocked at the lapse.
This turned out to be the first public hint at a deadly, unstoppable tragedy. Gershwin was suffering from an undiagnosed and rapidly progressing brain tumor. Within five months he lapsed into a coma and, on July 11, a few hours after emergency surgery, George Gershwin died.
“That he would die at just 38 is truly a tragedy in the history of American music,” said Feinstein during an interview at his Hollywood Hills home earlier this year.
“He was still writing for the movies, but he was also actively planning to work on a second opera. There is a string quartet written, though only the viola part remains that we know of. Plus, popular music was constantly changing -- the swing era, for instance, is just surging; how would he have responded?”
Feinstein’s preoccupation with these questions is not just academic, but an interesting facet of his exploration into the life and music of the Gershwins in the form of a recent book that is a must-read for anyone in the thrall of George and Ira.
“The Gershwins and Me” was published last year and its genesis comes from Feinstein’s six-year association with Ira Gershwin as the lyricist’s personal archivist that began in 1977. This was a key starting point for the 30 years-plus Feinstein has been playing their music, and the access he was afforded gives the book its unique insights into the Gershwins.
The book is organized into 12 chapters, arranged chronologically through the Gershwins' careers. The text, which delves deeply into their professional and personal lives, is supplemented with in-depth parsings of 12 Gershwin tunes, which Feinstein sings on a CD that accompanies the book.
Given his personal association with the Gershwins, it’s no surprise that Saturday night’s program -- similar to the two earlier concerts programmed by Feinstein this summer during his initial season conducting the Pasadena Pops -- will include musical rarities, largely in the form of arrangements that have not been heard performed live before.
“George wrote the music for the song ‘Love Walked In’ in 1930, but Ira didn’t do lyrics for it until 1937, for the 1938 movie ‘The Goldwyn Follies,' ” said Feinstein.
“The song was later a hit for a lot of people. But I was taken with a version done for a 1959 Cyd Charisse TV special and this hasn’t been heard live previously.
“I have also generously been granted access to several pieces of music from the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn film ‘Funny Face’ which also have never been performed live before and these are on the bill.”
Feinstein was reflective anticipating Saturday’s concert.
“You know, I always say -- and I do mean -- that each show is personal to me, in one way or another. But the Gershwins' music is indelible, it is woven into our cultural history, has made American music what it is. So I may not show it at the podium, but be aware that I am honored to conduct this program.”
Michael Feinstein, conducting the Pasadena Pops in an all-Gershwin program, with guest vocal soloists Tom Wopat and Catherine Russell. Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia. Saturday. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. for picnicking, concert begins at 7:30 p.m. $20-$72. 626-793-7172 or www.pasadenasymphony-pops.org.
Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Program includes two Gershwin pieces, “Cuban Overture” and “Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture.” Hollywood Bowl, Tuesday, with gates opening at 6 p.m., performance at 8:30 p.m. $2-$148.50. 323-850-2040 or www.hollywoodbowl.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times