Porgy and Bess and Itzhak Perlman @ Tanglewood
Sorry for the radio silence on the blog as of late. I’ve been dedicating all my writing time to finishing up the dissertation. Almost there!
That said, I couldn’t resist a quick post related to a news item I encountered this afternoon. WBUR.org ran a story today about the upcoming 2011 Tanglewood season, which is chock-full of fantastic performances. What caught my attention in the article was this sentence:
“Other 2011 season highlights include Itzhak Perlman’s return to the Berkshires, both conducting and performing in the first-ever concert performance of the opera Porgy and Bess.”
Really?!? No. Unfortunately, the article’s author conflated details from the BSO’s press release. Both Porgy and Bess and Itzhak Perlman will be part of the final week of next season, but no such mash-up will occur.
One reason this caught my attention is that one of the YouTube clips I encountered in my research on harmonica player Larry Adler features Perlman and Adler playing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.
With this in mind, I couldn’t help but imagine what a performance conducted and performed by Perlman would be like. Given the venue and the musicians involved, it would certainly have to be a much more formal interpretation than this clip from a 1980 BBC-TV talk show hosted by Michael Parkinson.
Adler recalled this performance in his autobiography:
At rehearsal Parkinson asked, “Could you two play something together?” We were both agreeable. I suggested a movement of the Bach Double Violin Concerto. Perlman objected. “We’d have to have the music; it would look too formal.”
Perlman was right. We tried a few other things, then I suggested “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. We had gone no more than a few bars when I stopped.
“That’s it,” I said, “let’s not kill it in rehearsal. We both know the tune, let’s just do it on the show.”
And that’s what we did. It was the single best thing I think I’ve ever done on TV.*
Of course, “Summertime” was originally composed as an operatic aria. Sure, it has the form and harmonic progression of the popular song of its day, but so do countless other arias in the history of western art music. That these two musicians found Bach’s Concerto too formal, but not Gershwin’s opera is hardly surprising. By 1980, “Summertime” had been covered by a wide variety of popular and jazz musicians. This particular performance falls in line with a long tradition of re-arranging Gershwin, highlighting the fact that the performative flexibility of his music is perhaps his greatest achievement as a composer.
That said, given the formal status that Porgy and Bess has achieved in the thirty years since this BBC program was aired, one wonders if Perlman might have made the same choice today. How Gershwin’s music is interpreted seems to be largely dependent on venue, perhaps even more so than on performer. Given the genre-crossing offerings found at Tanglewood, a more flexible rendition of Porgy and Bess using world-class performers such as Perlman would be an interesting artistic endeavor. However, it does not appear that this is what they have in mind. Nevertheless, I’m excited to see Gershwin find such a prominent place in the summer season. I also have little doubt that Perlman conducting of an all Beethoven concert, featuring the first and fifth symphonies along with two romances for violin and orchestra, will be a rousing success as well.
For what it’s worth, there is another inaccuracy from that single sentence in the WBUR article cited above: This will not be the first-ever concert performance of Porgy and Bess. Perhaps the author meant that it would be the first-ever occurrence of the work at Tanglewood. Concertized performances of excerpts (both instrumental and sung) have proliferated in the seventy plus years since the work’s premiere. To the best of my knowledge, the first concert performance of the work in-full took place back in 2006. The Nashville Symphony, under the baton of John Mauceri, performed a semi-staged rendition of the opera, which was notable for being “complete” as Gershwin composed it. This included a long-lost rendition of “Oh, I Can’t Sit Down” performed by an onstage band. Wayne Shirley has spoken about the significance of this particular number to the musical coherence of the opera. But I digress…
Back to the dissertation!
*Larry Adler, It Ain’t Necessarily So (London: Collins, 1984): 223. Adler was a renowned storyteller and he admits in his autobiography that he embellishes certain details from his life and career. That said, I’m inclined to believe this one.