Serious and Popular: Gershwin at Carnegie Hall’s Opening Night

From left: Audra McDonald, Renée Fleming, and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at Carnegie Hall’s opening-night performance. (Chris Lee)
A night of music by a grade-A, non-certified natural musical genius.

Carnegie Hall opened its 2018–19 season with a gala performance by the San Francisco Symphony, featuring conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and sopranos Renée Fleming and Audra McDonald. The program included some Broadway pop numbers, a few of which were lamentably political and can be ignored, just as you’d ignore a child who yells to get attention. The evening was a great success because it started and ended with Gershwin.

The show opened with the vivacious and utterly captivating Cuban Overture, followed by Audra McDonald singing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. The final number was An American in Paris, Gershwin’s most beloved concert work after Rhapsody in Blue. It was obvious from watching the audience smiling, sitting up in their seats, and nodding their heads with the music that people love Gershwin today just as much as they always have: When the first all-Gershwin concert was given in New York in 1932, it filled Lewisohn Stadium beyond capacity to 18,000 and left another 5,000 disappointed concertgoers on the street outside. It was twice as popular as a typical ’30s Yankees game.

And yet Gershwin is rarely performed by today’s leading orchestras. Howard Hirsch hit the nail on the head in his program notes for the evening: He observed that the musical establishment was profoundly irritated that “a more or less self-taught Broadway tunesmith presumed to write ambitious concert works” and that these works were “boisterously successful.”

Gershwin’s music is at once beautiful, exhilarating, and totally original. He captured the essence of a young, enthusiastic, but thoughtful America better than any other artist. He deserves to be considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. One could make a compelling case that he is the greatest composer of the 20th century, but music buffs and scholars tend to laugh: Gershwin, they say, is not “serious” music.

When did popularity become a strike against seriousness? Schubert performed his lieder at parties, and Bach played the harpsichord at Zimmermann’s Coffee House. How did we reach a point where music, to win scholarly approval, must be unpleasant and, to an untrained ear, unlistenable? It is funny to think that the same music buffs who praise contemporary composers for their iconoclastic rule-breaking also mock Gershwin for his supposed ignorance of classical symphonic structure. Even Leonard Bernstein once wrote, in an embarrassing screed, that Gershwin’s “nice” tunes were not “real composition” — but that they were so enjoyable he loved them anyway. Very generous.

The problem with Gershwin is that nobody else could do it: No one could write like Gershwin without being a grade-A, 100 percent, non-certified natural musical genius. So the academic music world hated Gershwin, and instead chose Schoenberg and Webern and, later, Cage and Glass as their role models: When music is based on a theoretical concept, rather than how it sounds, suddenly anyone can do it. This was the appeal of rule-based composition “systems” like Schoenberg’s terrible twelve-tones. This is why the only thing you’ll learn about Gershwin in a university music program is that he was Schoenberg’s occasional tennis partner.

Almost everyone who attends an academic composition program really wants, more than anything on earth, to be a composer. When these students discover that they’re simply not composers — that they haven’t got what 100 years ago would have been the obvious requisites of talent and imagination and a capacity for melody and harmony — there are two possible courses: They can admit defeat gracefully and move on to a different career. Or they can spend the rest of their lives pretending to be what they wish they were. Ever since the invention of conceptual music, the vast majority of failed composers have chosen the second and less honorable course, hiding their lack of talent behind a rulebook that proclaims talent no longer matters.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to music: It has created a generation of painters who can’t paint and writers who can’t write. Just see any “Poetry in Motion” poster in the New York subway. But what it has done most of all is to wreck public interest in art: The days when a symphony debut could draw like a baseball game are far in the past. Today’s common man is told that art isn’t supposed to appeal to him — that true art is something he’s just too dumb to appreciate. That is a tragic crime, and the damage is long-lasting. But, when Carnegie Hall opens its season with Gershwin, we can all take heart for a better future.

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