Has Chorally Confused got the mid-term Gershwin singing blues? Learning songs for our next concert, Fascinating Rhythm, has been a challenging and steep learning curve. The harmonies are complex and very different from the classical pieces of choral music the Choir has learned recently and the rhythms are well, fascinating.
The score for this concert has been hand written in places and this makes for an appreciation of what singers might have experienced before the advent of printed music. Think Handel with a goose feather quill and octopus ink, a shaky hand after a pint or two of good German lager and you begin to get the drift.
Chorally Confused, who has never learned to read music but can now follow it (as she thought) pretty successfully, is suffering from repeatitis. For those of you who spend time with your head in a stave this might be just run of the mill but for those of us with a big red L-plate on our back in the musical reading department repeated repeats can become confusing and the score for this concert is full of repeats: repeat: full of repeats!
Not only are there simple repeats, sing through to the repeat mark(:) turn back and sing it again, but there are repeats inside the repeats. Sing to the repeat mark, turn back and sing it again, carry on after the second time to the repeat marks, and go back – Where!?
The most useful musical term learned so far is “Thumb”, written at the point where Chorally Confused must insert her thumb in order to go back to the first repeat. It may not be the correct classical music notation but its the easiest way to navigate successfully. One wiser and more experienced member of the Choir said use a paperclip, which is a good idea, and anyhow Chorally Confused would need to have a thumb in the score to find the paperclip.
Chorally Confused sings soprano, the top line – the previous user of the score, who sang alto on the next line down, wrote some instructions too, although not quite sure what auburn refers to…. faster is perfectly clear.
Come what may the Choir is very grateful to the North Devon Choral Society for the loan of the scores and to Robin Page, who painstakingly and beautifully arranged the music in SATB parts for Choirs like us to sing.
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First performed in Boston in 1935 the opera Porgy & Bess has been performed many times over the intervening years. Here are Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald bringing soul to the American Repertory Theatre’s production of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 2011.
The story of the writing of the opera runs thus. At some date in the 1920s a black American named Goatcart Sammy murdered a woman and was pursued by the police who, being provided with Cadillacs, not surprisingly overtook the goat-cart and put Sammy in gaol. This story caught the fancy of one DuBose Heyward who put it into a novel called Porgy. This caught the fancy of George Gershwin when he was touring in 1926 with one of his earliest and best musicals, Oh, Kay! He wrote to Heyward suggesting an opera. Heyward put him off because he was dramatizing the book for Broadway. The play was a hit and in 1932 Gershwin propositioned Heyward again. He saw in Porgy a chance to write and opera where he could find the middle ground between classical music and American jazz, one of his lifelong desires and by now a fixation. The deal was done; Heyward was to do the libretto working along with George’s brother Ira, widely know as a top class lyricist.
George put in a lot of homework living on an island off Charleston, South Carolina, studying a community whose music was thought to be the nearest thing to the real ‘McCoy’ in the matter of spirituals. He wrote the opera in 20 months. The piano score was entirely his own work but how much of the orchestration he did himself has always been a bit of mystery.
The Gershwin brothers were the impresarios as well as the creators of Porgy and they took great pains to audition and selected their all-coloured cast. Todd Duncan got the role of Porgy and was to sing the hit numbers all over the world for the next 40 years. After the out-of-town run the show had its real first night in the Alvin Theatre, New York on 10 October 1935. It ran for 124 performances – not enough to recoup the investment on a Broadway musical but surely a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records as an opening run of consecutive performances of a new opera.
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George Gershwin, the son of Russian immigrants who settled in New York, joined the popular music business in his mid-teens, composing his first song in 1916. Other songs were written for inclusion in Broadway shows leading to La La Lucille! (1919), a complete Broadway score, the first of a series of stage works that placed Gershwin at the centre of New York theatrical life for 15 years, and which formed the platform for his prodigious melodic talent.
In 1919 he also composed his first big ‘hit’, Swanee, recorded the following year by Al Jolson and earning Gershwin $10,000 alone in that year.
Gershwin did not consider classical and popular music as discrete genres, and in Rhapsody in Blue (1924) for piano and orchestra combined elements from each genre with success, as well as in such large scale works as the Piano Concerto (1925) and the opera, Porgy & Bess (1935).
In a significant number of works he was also not afraid to introduce some of the compositional techniques associated with the latest classical music to convincing effect.