George Gershwin was a major artist taking a hiatus from the rigors of composing when he stopped in St. Louis in March 1936, to conduct his Suite from Porgy and Bess and to play his Concerto in F with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He was 37. He had already achieved a brilliant career. His music possessed the drive, the bounce, the exhilaration, and the longing, of the Modern Age. His tunes danced in such a way that they inspired artful hoofers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers‹and gave to those less graceful a rhythm to match their desperate hearts. But to look back at this moment when one of America's most embraceable artists came to town is to be aware of the terrible shadow that would soon befall him. This would be Gershwin's only appearance with the SLSO. A year later he would die in Los Angeles from a brain tumor.
Gershwin, as a Post-Dispatch reporter wrote in the vernacular of the day, "came from Brooklyn slums to pound out ragtime as a song plugger in Tin Pan Alley" at the age of 15, was writing musical comedy at 19, and had become the "kingpin of the Alley at 25." He created a musical sensation with Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, bringing the jazz of the nightclubs into American concert halls. His symphonic work An American in Paris surpassed Rhapsody as a musical achievement in many people's minds.
And there were the great songs he wrote with his brother, Ira, for Broadway and Hollywood: "I Got Rhythm," "The Man I Love," "Oh, Lady Be Good," "Fascinating Rhythm," "But Not for Me," "'S Wonderful," "Someone to Watch Over Me"‹all of which were behind him in 1936 as he entertained the local press in his suite at the Coronado Hotel to promote his March 1 concert with the SLSO and Music Director Vladimir Golschmann. Gershwin cupped a pipe in his hands, those hands distinguished by the long, thin fingers of a piano man. There was a piano in his hotel room, with music by Ravel on the stand. Gershwin posed for photographs in his dark suit coat and jaunty plaid tie. He struck a "serious composer" expression as he leafed through a copy of the 572-page score of Porgy and Bess. Gershwin's ambitious folk opera had just concluded a run of 124 consecutive performances in New York, which was regarded as a disappointment at the box office. Many of the critics, including Virgil Thomson, treated Gershwin as an unworthy interloper into the realms of high art.
Gershwin settled in for a two-hour interview. He talked about Rhapsody in Blue. "I was just trying to express life around me in 1924," he said. "It was written to put jazz in a more serious form." He described the newness of his music‹not new like Stravinsky, he explained, but new without being strange to popular understanding. "I'm trying mainly to be American in the feeling of my music," he said. The reporters found it a novelty that Gershwin would speak of Bach and W.C. Handy in the same breath.
The composer presented the idea of another opera, something with cowboys. He had found a librettist he was excited about, Lynn Riggs, the author of the popular play Green Grow the Lilacs. Six years after his death, Lilacs would become the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein's landmark American musical, Oklahoma!
Gershwin had another musical comedy in the works as well, and clearly took umbrage when a reporter thought that this suggested the composer would be taking it easy. "Musical comedy isn't any easier than anything else," Gershwin retorted. "It takes just as much work to do a tune like 'I Got Rhythm' as to do anything in Porgy."
On Sunday, with the SLSO and Golschmann at the Opera House, Gershwin played the Concerto in F, a work that owes a debt as much to the African American composer James P. Johnson, the composer of "The Charleston," as it does to the Frenchman Ravel. The critic for the Globe-Democrat, Hume Duval, called Gershwin the "monarch of rhythms" and praised the Orchestra's ability to "get hot." Gershwin "played with dash and verve," Duval wrote, and then, damning with faint praise, claimed that Gershwin "makes skillful use of the piano in the exploitation of his creative genius along the lines of rhythm, however sadly he may neglect melody."
The Post-Dispatch critic, Thomas B. Sherman, was more withering in his assessment. Sherman characterized the Concerto as "…just so many lengths of jazz laid end to end and fastened to each other more or less arbitrarily. Symphonic development is as foreign to Mr. Gershwin's way of composing as Chaucer would be to Mae West."
Mae West's Chaucerian qualities notwithstanding, Gershwin's "riots of rhythm" received a "rousing reception" from the audience that day.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.