Wednesday, September 30, 2015

This Day in Music History, 30 September 1935

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

On this day, 80 years ago, the world premiere performance of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston—the try-out for a work intended initially for Broadway where the opening took place at the Alvin Theatre in New York City on October 10, 1935.

With an all-black cast headed by Todd Duncan (Porgy) and Anne Brown (Bess), and including Warren Coleman, Helen Dowdy, Georgette Harvey, Edward Matthews, and the Eva Jessye Choir, the original production of Porgy and Bess was a commercial disappointment when it opened on Broadway in 1935, running only 124 performances.

In an article for Jazz History Online, Thomas Cunniffe writes:

[Porgy and Bess] lives in two separate worlds. It is an opera, yet it premiered in a Broadway theatre. Its premiere run [of  124 performances could be viewed as]a flop by Broadway standards, but an impressive record for a contemporary American opera. Gershwin composed the work in the established style of European grand opera, but the music reflected the American genres he loved: jazz, blues, ragtime, folk songs, and black sacred music. He was criticized for including “hit songs” into a serious opera, but those songs became the work’s greatest legacy. In addition to creating an indigenous sound for American opera, the music from “Porgy and Bess” was performed by jazz and pop musicians all over the world, and it was loved by audiences who had never seen the opera in its stage or film versions.
Couldn’t have said it better myself…

In doing my research for this post, I stumbled onto this excellent article that provides a great overview of the work, the literary sources and the overall reception:

In another article, on Sound Fountain, there is a comprehensive look at “serious” recordings of the Gershwin opera. It confirms that, probably because it did poorly on Broadway, no formal original Broadway cast album was recorded. But in 1942, a Broadway revival was mounted that again featured Brown, Duncan, Coleman, Dowdy, Harvey, Matthews, original music director Alexander Smallens and the Eva Jessye Choir, with Avon Long replacing John W. Bubbles as Sportin' Life. This production was more successful than the original, running 286 performances and helping to establish the show as a classic.

Decca Records had cut some recordings using these performers in 1940 and added more tracks in 1942 for what was technically a studio cast album, even though it featured most of the key members of the original Broadway cast. I’m pleased to have uncovered a version on the Internet Archive, for you to listen to.

All and all, I find the recording to be pretty good - and the digital transfer as well – and hearing the original voices gives this a little bit of extra legitimacy.

Happy Listening!

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
(Selected numbers)

Anne Brown (Soprano)
Todd Duncan (Baritone)
Eva Jessye and her Choir
Members of the original New York production,
Decca Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Smallens, conducting
DECCA "Personality Series"

Synopsis and Libretto -

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Porgy And Bess - The Jazz Version

This is my post from tghis week's Tuesday Blog.

This installment of Once Upon the Internet looks at a 1950's studio version of Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, featuring singers Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, which I uploaded years ago from (as I re all) a Russian site.

The Porgy discography is vast - from the 1940's "original cast" recording, the soundtrack to the Otto Preminger feature film, to large opera productions by established opera companies, with "concept albums" inspired from the Gershwin work, and of course a litany of singers that have recorded stand-alone numbers (like Janis Joplin singing Summertime, for example).

Chief among the "concept" ventures is the Miles Davis 1958 record, which features arrangements by Davis and collaborator Gil Evans. As one of Davis' best-selling albums, Porgy and Bess has earned recognition as a landmark album in orchestral jazz. 

Just as remarkable as this instrumental effort, the 1959 studio album by jazz vocalist and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and singer Ella Fitzgerald. In 2001, it was awarded with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, a special achievement prize established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

The arranger on this album, Russell Garcia, had previously arranged the first jazz vocal recording of the opera, 1956's, The Complete Porgy and Bess.

The album is considered the most musically successful amongst the jazz vocal versions of the opera and was released to coincide with the 1959 movie version.

Happy Listening!

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
(Selected numbers - see track listing below)
Louis Armstrong - vocals, trumpet
Ella Fitzgerald - vocals
Paul Smith - piano
Alvin Stoller - drums
Studio Orchestra
Russell Garcia - Arranger, Conductor
Original LP (Verve MGV 4011-2)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Afro-American Opera

No. 209 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


My podcast for September aligns with an important anniversary – this year marks the 80-th anniversary of the creation of George Gershwin’s “folk opera” Porgy and Bess.

If Porgy is without a doubt the most well-known opera that deals with African Americans in the Rural South at a time when they lived at the fringe of the White-dominated American society, there are many other works that have African American subject matters in the stage repertoire, and I chose to assemble three of them in today’s podcast.

The first work chronologically is, in my mind, the only “true” African-American opera of the trio, as it not only discusses an African-American subject but was also composed by an African-American. The famed African-American composer Scott Joplin, most famous for his ragtime piano works, composed two operas on Afro-American subjects. His first, A Guest of Honor (1903) is an artistic depiction of the 1901 visit of African American leader Booker T. Washington to the White House, where he dined with President Teddy Roosevelt. Joplin brought A Guest of Honor to less than a dozen stages across the Midwest in September 1903, but the production was robbed of its receipts in Springfield, Illinois. Unable even to pay the bill for the touring company's stay at a Springfield boarding house, Joplin was forced to leave behind a trunk as collateral. It contained some of his personal effects, including unpublished manuscripts that may have included the score of A Guest of Honor. Those items were never recovered. Although a copyright for A Guest of Honor was applied for, the copyright office never received the customary copies of the score for its files – the opera is lost.

Joplin’s second – and most ambitious – contribution to the genre is Treemonisha (1910, rev. 1972). Though it encompasses a wide range of musical styles other than ragtime (and Joplin did not refer to it as such)] it is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "ragtime opera".

Treemonisha takes place in a former slave plantation in an isolated forest between Joplin's childhood town Texarkana and the Red River in Arkansas in September 1884. The plot centers on an 18-year-old woman Treemonisha who is taught to read by a white woman, and then leads her community against the influence of conjurers who prey on ignorance and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps' nest when her friend Remus rescues her. The community realizes the value of education and the liability of their ignorance before choosing her as their teacher and leader.

The music of Treemonisha includes an overture and prelude, along with various recitatives, choruses, small ensemble pieces, a ballet, and a few arias – Gunther Schuler (who passed away earlier this year) was responsible for the orchestration of the revival at the Houston Grand Opera in 1972. Today’s performance is from a Norwegian ensemble, who does a fine job!

The line between musical comedy, operetta and opera can sometimes be very blurred. The line is also further blurred when opera companies (or recording projects) approach musical comedies with operatic singers and in grand opera style. West Side Story, South Pacific and Show Boat are three examples of musical comedies I can think of that were afforded that attention. I think it’s pure happenstance that all three works deal with some form of “ethnic” storyline.

Based on Edna Ferber's bestselling novel of the same name, Show Boat is a 1927 musical in two acts, with music by Jerome Kern and libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II. It follows the lives of the performers, stagehands, and dock workers on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, over forty years, from 1887 to 1927. Its themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love. The musical contributed such classic songs as "Ol' Man River", "Make Believe", and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man".

In 1941, the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodziński premiered the orchestral work Show Boat: A Scenario for Orchestra , a 22-minute orchestral work weaving together many themes from the show. Rodziński and the orchestra recorded it that same year, and it is that historical recording that I included in today’s podcast.

The third and final opera is proposed here “in its entirety”, and pre-dates Porgy by about 15 years. It too is by George Gershwin (seconded here by Buddy DeSylva and not by his brother Ira). Blue Monday (Opera à la Afro-American) was the original name of a one-act "jazz opera" - originally part of the George White Scandals of 1922 – later renamed 135th Street during a later production. 

DeSylva originally conceived a plan for writing a "jazz opera" set in Harlem and based on the Italian language verismo opera Pagliacci with Gershwin in the early 1920s, and George White’s music director Paul Whiteman, who had built much of his reputation on such experimental fusions of different musical and dramatic genres, persuaded White to include it in the 1922 Scandals.

(Whiteman and Gershwin would later collaborate on another “fusion” project a few years later – the work became Rhapsody in Blue).

When you “google” Blue Monday, you get results like “the saddest day of the year” (or if like me you are a Montreal Expos nostalgic devotee, it reminds us of a cold, fateful day in 1981). This Blue Monday is indeed sad, and does provide a Pagliacci-like scenario with jealousy and murder, with a bit of a silver lining at the end.

Blue Monday synopsis -
Blue Monday Libretto -

I think you will love this music too.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

By George!

This is my post from this week's Tuesday Blog.

No. 79 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

Much of my activities this month (see the “teaser” below) are commemorating the World Premiere of George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. In a couple of weeks, I will be sharing something specific on that opera on the Tuesday Blog, but this week we dip into the Podcast Vault, and recycle an all-Gershwin program.

The bulk of the montage provides a series of adaptations and settings of some of Gershwin’s famous tunes, going from virtuoso etudes by Earl Wild to jazz adaptations by Benny Goodman and Miles Davis. The latter, from his Porgy and Bess concept album, will get further discussion in a couple of weeks.

Two tracks feature Gershwin as a pianist, both in-person and virtually. According to an article by Jack Gibbons for Piano Magazine , “by all contemporary accounts Gershwin’s piano playing was phenomenal; such legendary virtuoso pianists as Rachmaninov and Josef Hofmann were deeply impressed with the natural ease and inventiveness of his playing. […]The examples of his playing that have survived – including some electric recordings, recordings of radio broadcasts, two sound films, and a considerable number of piano rolls – reveal a youthfulness, a vigour, a 'pep' which guaranteed to make him the centre of attention at any social gathering.” 

We hear Gershwin play one of his three piano preludes, and from a vintage piano roll, Gershwin attacks his famous Rhapsody in Blue at a break-neck pace.

Happy Listening!

ITYWLTMT Montage #79 - In Memoriam - George Gershwin
(Originally published on Friday, 9 November 2012)

Royland Earl WILD (1915 –2010)
7 Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs (1973) - Selections
Earl Wild, piano

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Prelude no. 2. in C-Sharp Minor
George Gershwin, piano

Strike Up the Band (From the Musical Comedy, 1927)
André Kostelanetz & His Orchestra

Facinating Rhythm (from Lady, Be Good!) / Someone To Watch Over Me (from Oh, Kay!, 1926)
Morton Gould (piano) & His Orchestra

Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away) (from Show Girl, 1929)
Benny Goodman (clarinet) & His Orchestra

Mine (from Let 'Em Eat Cake, 1933)
Dick Hyman, piano with uncredited accompaniment

They Can't Take That Away from Me (from Shall We Dance, 1937)
Charlie Parker (Saxophone) With Strings (Carnegie Hall 1950)

Porgy and Bess (1935)
Instrumental arrangements and sung selections

Overture & Medley
Russell Garcia & His Orchestra

Oscar Peterson, piano
Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, double bass
Jake Hanna, drums

I Wants to Stay Here (a.k.a. I Loves You, Porgy)
Miles Davis – trumpet & flugelhorn
Gil Evans – musical director

Bess, You Is My Woman Now
Robert McFerrin & Adele Addison
MGM Studio Orchestra
Andre Previn, conducting

There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York
Cab Calloway 
MGM Studio Orchestra
Andre Previn, conducting

Blues (Arrangement of An American In Paris, 1928)
Harry James (trumpet) & His Orchestra

Rhapsody in Blue, for piano and jazz orchestra (1924)
George Gershwin, piano roll (Aeolian Company, 1925)
Columbia Jazz Band
Michael Tilson-Thomas, conducting