George Gershwin, in his day, was bigger than Gaga (Lady, that is). And almost 100 years later we’re still listening to his iconic tunes, this month courtesy of the Doha Community Orchestra and Wind Band. ‘It’s old stuff, but it’s good stuff,’ says Brita Fray, director of the orchestra. ‘I think any music that is good stands the test of time. I mean, why do we still listen to Beethoven? He died 300 years ago. It’s because it’s good stuff.’
And according to Fray, Gershwin is just good music. ‘It’s singable,’ he says. ‘He’s remembered a lot for his musicals too, such as Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris. They were made into movies. they were that popular.’
Sanford Jones, director of the wind band, agrees. ‘The orchestra plans to perform highlights from An American in Paris, as well as a selection of other Gershwin works, like “Embraceable You”, “Strike Up the Band”, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Japanese”,’ he says. ‘The highlighted piece will be the unforgettable “Rhapsody in Blue.” It’s all enjoyable music; it’s accessible for both the players and the audience. It’s just toe-tapping. It’s not complex in its orchestration, the harmony, the melody. It’s not simple-simple, but it is melody, combined with a more simple harmony. I mean, it was the pop music of its day.’
Gershwin started composing music professionally when he was only a teenager, after dropping out of school at 15. He had his first national hit in 1919 with ‘Swanee’, and after that piled the hits high: ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ in 1924; ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ in 1924; An American in Paris in 1928; and ‘I Got Rhythm’ in 1930. He won an Oscar posthumously in 1937 for ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, written with his brother Ira, from the film Shall We Dance, as well as penning the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize, 1931’s Of Thee I Sing.
‘Gershwin is one of those composers who’s purely American. So it’s exciting to be able to play that – that’s not often performed a lot in symphonic concerts. It is in jazz orchestras and things like that, but among traditional classical symphony orchestras it’s not often played. So it’s exciting,’ says Fray. ‘I know a lot of members have said they enjoy playing it because it challenges them as musicians, because what you see on the page is not necessarily how you play Gershwin all the time. He’s influenced by jazz, so a lot of the rhythms are swing. It’s not even notes; you’ve got to feel that rhythm, that swing kind of beat. For some people it comes naturally and some not so.
That’s something we strive to create for an authentic sound of Gershwin. It’s very enjoyable for people to play. It’s real music. I mean, it feels like an accomplishment.’ Gershwin’s own accomplishments weren’t just limited to awards and record sales (although his mother must have been very proud, as he and his brother Ira raked in the accolades). He was a trailblazer in more ways than one: he incorporated elements of classical and jazz in his work, and took chances, whether it was including Parisian car horns in An American in Paris (which he had to bring with him from France for its first production in the US), or writing the controversial jazz opera Porgy and Bess, which in its original incarnation starred a completely black cast (unheard of in the 1930s), launching the careers of several African-American opera singers, but which many considered to be racist.
But however you examine it, ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess is still one of the most covered songs in the world. ‘If you imagine people who are really incredibly popular and make swarms of others follow that, it changes the way people listen to music,’ says Fray. And in his opinion, that is what makes a truly great songwriter.
‘To make the Simon Cowell reference, it’s got to be memorable. You’ve got to have a memorable song. And who’s to say what the actual construction of that is. But certainly Gershwin and his brother, who wrote a lot of the words to the melodies and things like that, they developed memorable-sounding music,’ adds Jones. ‘As far as songwriters go [today], off the top of my head, John Meyer is a good songwriter, the Dave Matthews Band, those are ones that I enjoy. I think for me a lot of it is recycled.
So the Lady Gaga song now that’s a remake of what was originally Madonna – it’s not even reinvented, it’s just recycled. It’s like paper, recycling. Not to slam on her [Gaga], but I think there’s a difference between a good performer, which she is, and a good musician. What’s going to stand the test of time? I’m not sure that will. Good songwriters are few and far between. The good ones through history, [their work] comes on the radio and you still remember it.’
And the fact that most people can hum the chorus of at least one Gershwin song (often without realising it is Gershwin) is more telling than all the viral videos or bouts of Bieber-fever combined.
Doha Community Orchestra and Wind Band perform Gershwin on April 29. Tickets are QR50, or QR30 if under 16. Contact email@example.com for more information and reservations