A Rhapsody in Gershwin, Composer and Songwriter


The name of Leonard Bernstein was invoked twice during the Great American Music Company’s tribute to George Gershwin on Sunday at Orange Coast College. Bassist, narrator and mastermind of the program, Jack Prather, paraphrased Bernstein’s summation of Gershwin as “one of the true authentic geniuses America has produced.”

That declaration, found in the appreciation Bernstein wrote for Charles Schwartz’s excellent biography of Gershwin, was only part of the story. As Bernstein and the biography point out, Gershwin was something of a tragic figure who died young, never gaining acceptance during his lifetime as a serious composer despite a body of serious theater and concert pieces.

Prather subsequently noted Bernstein’s judgment of “structural weaknesses” present in Gershwin’s more ambitious compositions, then proved the folly of that statement, turning pianist Jack Reidling loose on “Rhapsody in Blue.” Reiding’s reading of the classic piece, at once quirky and beautifully melodic, was the highlight of a program that had a number of high points.


Credit Prather for presenting an honest portrayal of Gershwin’s life and accomplishments, and for letting the composer’s music do most of the talking.

Between the reverent presentations of Gershwin material and Prather’s informative narration, a sense of the man and his accomplishments was delivered with an immediacy that no biography could achieve.

Gershwin’s roots in Tin Pan Alley kept him from the critical acceptance he craved, as the critical press of the day was reluctant to find value in the work of a popular songwriter. By contrast, Prather and company celebrated both sides of Gershwin’s career: the consummate songwriter and the developing young composer.

The show opened with Ray Pizzi sounding the familiar ascending clarinet line from “Rhapsody” before vocalists Dewey Erney and Stephanie Haynes joined voices on “S’Wonderful.” Prather introduced “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag),” Gershwin’s first published work, and Reidling played in a daintily rhythmic style that reflected the period’s ragtime rhythms.


From there, the ensemble followed Gershwin’s career through such tunes as “Somebody Loves Me,” “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You” and others that have survived the test of time. Gershwin’s collaboration with his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, was emphasized, and such names as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers popped in and out of the narration.

The musical presentations were all first class. Haynes especially was in fine form as she delivered a moving rendition of “Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy.” Erney, whose voice made for a fine blend in unison presentations with Haynes, sang convincingly on “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”


The rhythm section, led by drummer Paul Kreibich, showed its jazz chops on a medley of “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “Strike Up the Band” and “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Saxophonist Pizzi added several bouncy, vibrant solos on up-tempo numbers, while playing with breathy seriousness on the ballad “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”


Prather’s arrangements found the best in Gershwin’s music, while additionally showing off his own writing skills. “Shall We Dance” moved through a number of moods and rhythms while the counterpointed melodies of “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Summertime,” sung by Haynes and Erney, was the evening’s most involved moment.

While the GAMC’s tribute to Gershwin was educational, its greatest success came as entertainment, as one fine memory after another was created by the ensemble. One can expect more of the same when the troupe presents a program of movie music from 1929-1939 at Cafe Mozart in San Juan Capistrano on Jan. 26. All of their presentations are well worth seeing.

* The Great American Music Company presents “Songs From the Golden Age of Movies” on Jan. 26 at Cafe Mozart, 31952 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 7:30 p.m. $35 includes dinner. (714) 496-0212.