Crossovers and Departures

If I do not get to see The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on Broadway, I will not be completely disappointed, thanks to John Schaefer. Today, I heard him live for the second time at The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space. (The first time was at the 30th anniversary celebration of New Sounds.) In this afternoon’s live broadcast, Schaefer interviewed Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, who play the title roles in the production of Porgy and Bess that opened on Broadway last week. They also sang two duets from it, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” accompanied by pianist Paul Massey.

The singers noted the beautiful mess of what I would call one of the United States’ early crossover artists. Since I learned about jazz—ten years after starting piano lessons—I have relished Gershwin’s blurring of the lines between classical and jazz. Hearing the rhythmic juxtapositions of “I Loves You, Porgy” and the parallel motion of somewhat dissonant harmonies in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” reminded me of when I played Rhapsody in Blue in college. As for spoken dialogue instead of recitative, I understand the need to make the piece more palatable for a contemporary audience.

Lewis, McDonald, and Shaeffer also discussed the history of the racial controversies incited by the piece since its inception. Like McDonald, I appreciate how Gershwin demanded an all-black cast for the 1935 premiere. After twenty years as a student of classical music, I am still awestruck when I see someone like me starring on a theatrical stage or directing a college classroom. (I felt the same way when I saw Memphis and when I met Pamela Z.)

Unfortunately, some of the audience was not as willing to blur the genre, racial, and generational boundaries as Gershwin and Schaefer were. Several of the African-American and/or over-40 listeners exited when the opera singers did. Those who left missed Sharon Van Etten and her band’s rhythmic nuance in “Ask,” hearty harmonizing vocals in “Give Out,” mesmerizing timbral effects in “Serpents,” and cascading melismas with an undercurrent of harmonium in “Leonard.” Thus, my only disappointment of the day was extramusical early departures.

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