Dallas — Someone once said that everyone in America, whether they know it or not, has a Gershwin song running through their head. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra will open their Pops season tapping into that universality with a concert entitled Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Sept. 8-10 at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
Jeff Tyzik, the Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, a well-known interpreter of Gershwin as well as the entire American Songbook, will be joined by pianist Jon Nakamatsu and tenor Doug LaBrecque in an exploration of Gershwin’s career from his early beginnings and influences to his famous and untimely death of a brain tumor in 1937. The concert includes many of his great orchestral works, of course, including the titular Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s rhythmically astonishing Piano Concerto in F, and the sinuous Cuban Overture now enjoying a much-deserved renaissance. But the program also centers on the popular and Broadway songs that are the very heart of Gershwin’s art. Unlike some programs where the vocal works are the filler that makes a Pops concert “Pop,” Tyzik and LaBrecque have incorporated them to showcase the songs as an integral part of Gershwin’s development and legacy as a composer.
I caught up with LaBrecque to talk about his role in the concert and about the importance of George Gershwin as a songwriter. The tenor has an extensive theatrical résumé, including portrayals of both Raoul and the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and Gaylord Ravenal in Hal Prince’s recent revival of Show Boat. His regional theater credits are vast as well, but he is particularly proud of his concert experience. He is a self-proclaimed ambassador for both the American and Broadway Songbooks and is a veteran of many appearances on the Meyerson stage.
TheaterJones: You’ve had a lot of experience singing Gershwin as well as all the great American composers. What is it about as Gershwin song that makes it a Gershwin song?
Doug LaBrecque: Well, I think if you look at his work, he had the influence of ragtime and jazz and Broadway, all the original forms of American music. Like any great artist he created his own unique sound and style from those. Only Gershwin harmonized songs like Gershwin. He played with rhythm in a way that was really wonderful and unique. Had he not gone on to write Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess and all the other orchestral works, he still would be remembered as one of the great American songwriters and composers
Are George Gershwin’s songs the art song of his generation? Will they stand with composers of the past?
Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, all the big five (including Gershwin): their songs were so well crafted with a beginning and middle and end. They became little stories on their own just like the art songs of the 17 and 1800s. Now going into the 21st century they are definitely thought of as the American art songs. The songs have changed their own legacy; it continued to grow. Theater music in the 30s, ’40s and ’50s was the popular music of their time. Now popular music is more rhythm-based than story songs and the classic vintage theater song has moved more to concert performances. I think this concert is a unique opportunity for people to hear how songs were written a hundred years ago, eighty years ago with some of the vintage orchestrations, and to just appreciate them and their artistry.
Gershwin wrote a lot with his brother [Ira] and they were writing at a time when musical comedy wasn’t overtly dramatic. Their songs have a certain 1920s vintage style. It’s not like a Stephen Foster parlor song. It’s more evocative of the era, more sophisticated. It has like a club feel. You feel like you could be at the Carlyle and George could be playing. That’s another thing that makes a Gershwin song stand out.
How much input do you have on choosing the songs in a program like this? Are there favorite Gershwin songs that you are performing or not performing in Dallas?
[Conductor Jeff Tyzik and I] collaborate a lot on the program. He has a set number of pieces that he wants the orchestra to play and then he wants to feature Jon Nakamatsu, who is a remarkable interpreter of Gershwin on the piano. Then when it comes to the songs, he and I start with the idea of coming up with a set of songs for the first act and then a set in the second, maybe ten or 15 minutes per set. That’s around three songs. I will tell him some ideas of what I would like to sing or might recommend an arrangement. In this concert we are doing something different. In this concert we are talking about the development of Gershwin and how Irving Berlin really influenced him. So I’m actually going to be singing an Irving Berlin song as well as the Gershwin ones.
I don’t choose my favorites although I love all the songs I am singing. What’s interesting in this concert is that we are performing the very first song that put Gershwin on the map, which is “Swanee.” Jeff will talk a bit about how the young Gershwin wrote the song and it became in international hit, selling so many copies of both sheet music and recordings. It provided him an opportunity to be financially secure and take a few more risks with his music. Then we bookend it with the last song he ever wrote just before he died in 1937, “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” which we do in a really intimate setting with mainly just piano and my voice to focus on the beauty of the melody and the simplicity of the lyrics. It was a love letter from his brother Ira who wrote the lyrics to the verse after George had died.
In this concert, you will hear a great variety of music. Gershwin’s music has been interpreted by a wide variety of jazz artists and in an amazing number of styles. But here we are trying to let Gershwin’s own style come out. My sets are going to sound vintage Broadway, which is a great juxtaposition with the other pieces that the orchestra and the pianist will play. You’ll get to see all the colors of George Gershwin. All the ways that his voice was so vast. He could write so many different styles. It’s amazing to think that the man who wrote Porgy and Bess also could write ‘Swonderful. They seem like two different people. Or that a person who can write a simple love song for the stage doesn’t seem like the same person who could write the Piano Concerto in F.
You have talked about being an ambassador of the American Songbook and your travel schedule has taken you to many international venues. Do you find foreign audiences are receptive to Gershwin?
Gershwin is very popular in Europe. Maybe not quite as popular yet in Asia, but he is still very well known. When he was young, he spent a lot of time in France so they are very familiar with him, like he is one of theirs. I feel I could go to a club in Paris and sing Gershwin and people would really love it. Even in English. I think to a Parisian his work seems more refined than some contemporary Broadway songs are.
How about his current legacy in America? You have the cabaret fans and the concert hall listeners who all know of Gershwin. But how does he do with the general public now?
I think he was branded really well posthumously by his brother and family. Gershwin had a rough time in his life getting critical acceptance, at least in the concert hall. His music was kind of shocking and controversial. But it’s a great tribute to Ira and his family that they kept the legacy alive and his legacy has grown and grown. His name is certainly known everywhere. He still sells a lot of tickets 80 years after his death, which is remarkable. Even if you didn’t know his music, I would say there is a visceral response when you hear it. If you brought a high school or college student to listen to Rhapsody I am almost certain they would be in awe of the piece because it’s a unique sound, a creation, a mode of making music that is not something they are really familiar with.
And his songs are a part of our American heritage. You start singing George’s songs and people will recognize them. “I know that,” they’ll say. “I sang it in high school or my favorite singer did a version of that in a club once. Or my parents used to sing that. Or oh, I’ve got a recording of that.”
What can we expect with the Dallas Symphony Pops concert?
We have tried to show all the voices of George Gershwin played at the highest and most expert level and conducted by one of his premier interpreters in Jeff Tyzik. And Jon Nakamatsu’s ability is remarkable. Rhapsody in Blue has been played thousands of times. The Dallas Symphony I’m sure has done it hundreds themselves. But Jon’s nuance and musicality is really special. I think people will understand the composer better and why he and especially his songs are still important to American music.
» Keith Mankin is the director of development for the Arts District Chorale