Interviews with Angel Gil-Ordóñez & Joseph Horowitz: Reintroducing Gershwin to American Audiences
This fall the Post-Classical Ensemble brings The Gershwin Project: Russian Gershwin to the Clarice Smith Center on September 24. Featuring Russian pianists Genadi Zagor and Vakhtang Kodanashvili, the program focuses on four pieces by the iconic American composer that straddle the worlds of classical, pop, jazz and folk music — Rhapsody in Blue, Three Preludes, Concerto in F and Cuban Overture.
But what exactly does “post-classical” mean? And why was Gershwin so important in Russia? Recently musical director Angel Gil-Ordóñez (video above) and artistic director Joseph Horowitz (transcript below) shared their thoughts on Gershwin, the Post-Classical Ensemble and working with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center since the ensemble’s inception in 2003.
How was the idea for The Gershwin Project developed?
Joseph Horowitz: I’ve long been associated with the Toradze Piano Studio, which presents a touring ensemble of students, former students and associates of Alexander Toradze, a good friend of mine who teaches at Indiana University. They’re almost all Georgian or Russian musicians, including Vakhtang Kodanashvili and Genadi Zagor.
Some years ago I had the idea of inviting them to play Gershwin, a composer adored in Soviet Russia. I knew it would sound different than the Gershwin we know — and it did.
Copland’s view was that Gershwin wasn’t a ‘real’ composer; he never included him in his lists of the most important American composers… This prejudice against Gershwin is finally dissipating.
During the time it was written, Gershwin’s music was mostly snubbed by the American classical music establishment but more recently, viewpoints toward the composer have changed. Why?
JH: Gershwin was snubbed by the classical music establishment because he was regarded as a “dilettante genius” rather than a great composer.
Most of his detractors were American-born classical musicians. If you look at the people who really appreciated him, they’re all foreign-born — Heifetz, Klemperer, Reiner, Schoenberg, Ravel; it’s a very long list. People like Copland and Virgil Thomson, on the other hand, ignored Gershwin or offered qualified praise. I call this “the jazz threat.”
When [pianist Vakhtang Kodanashvili] played [Gershwin’s Concerto in F] in Orange County …, he received the biggest ovation I’ve ever witnessed in that hall. The audience was ready to tear the place apart.
Copland’s view was that Gershwin wasn’t a “real” composer; he never included him in his lists of the most important American composers. And they were of course of the same generation, living in the same city. This was a period when jazz was accredited as America’s defining music.
What mattered to Europeans like Bartók or Weill or Ravel was jazz: Gershwin, Ellington, Armstrong, Harlem. They didn’t care about Copland and Thomson.
This prejudice against Gershwin is finally dissipating. American orchestras have begun incorporating works like Rhapsody in Blue or the Concerto in F as part of their subscription season, rather than marginalizing this amazing repertoire as “pops.”
What sort of connection does Gershwin’s music have with that of Russia?
JH: His parents were Russian, and if you examine the history of classical music in Russia, you’ll see that in the 1930s he was already massively popular.
He’s an incredible eclectic, of course. He once said “Summertime” [from Porgy and Bess] reminded him of [Jewish] cantorial song.
And then there’s the influence of Tin Pan Alley, of jazz and his own very considerable exposure to classical music. He was a musical omnivore, absorbing an enormous range of music. So his own music can be rendered in an enormous range of styles.
In a concert billed as “distinctly American work being performed from a decidedly Russian perspective,” what can audiences expect to hear?
JH: The Concerto in F will sound different than any version they’ve heard — more romantic, more virtuosic.
When Vakhtang played it in Orange County on a Pacific Symphony Gershwin/Stravinsky festival, he received the biggest ovation I’ve ever witnessed in that hall. The audience was ready to tear the place apart. I actually believe he’s the greatest exponent of this piece I’ve ever encountered.
Gershwin was particularly gifted at bridging the worlds of classical and popular music, particularly the jazz and blues of his era. Do you think this program will resonate with audiences from both of those communities?
JH: [Pianist Genadi Zagor] is both a jazz musician and a classical musician. He’ll improvise the solos in Rhapsody in Blue. Most likely this will be the first time your audience will have heard a soloist improvise with orchestra.
Most likely this will be the first time your audience will have heard a soloist improvise with orchestra.
What does “Post-Classical” mean?
JH: I coined the term “post-classical” because I didn't want to use the term “classical music,” which itself was coined in the nineteenth century as an elitist designation. What it implicitly says is that it — “classical music” — is a supreme stratum, superior to “popular.”
We call ourselves Post-Classical Ensemble because we inhabit a broad swath of music. Our concerts regularly incorporate popular music, folk music, vernacular music.
Post-Classical made its official debut in 2003. What was the vision for the group when it was founded? Do you feel that you've attained that vision in the last seven years?
JH: The vision is very specific — to break out of classical music, both in terms of repertoire and format. Our Friday Gershwin concert will begin with a recording of Gershwin playing his Second Prelude, followed by an improvisation on the Prelude by Genadi. When was the last time you attended a concert that began with a recording?
This excerpted transcript of the full video interview has been edited for length and clarity.