Last week I filled in for Fred Child on Performance Today for a few days. One day the show featured George Gershwin's Concerto in F, played by a Quebecois pianist named Alain Lefevre.
I always experience a pleasant flashback at hearing the concerto. It was early in college, and I was going about my four-year business of not preparing myself for the job market with a course load heavy on the humanities and lit. My head was already full of Americana — the textual Newsreels of John Dos Passos, the unregulated word-volcanoes of Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald's pop-savvy flappers. One afternoon I ducked into the listening room of the university library for no particular reason, maybe just to balance out the senses a little bit.
I was aware of Gershwin, but little more. Snippets of the Rhapsody in Blue might filter into your awareness through various media even if you weren't paying attention. So browsing, I picked up a two-LP set of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy that included the tasty Gershwin basics: the Rhapsody, the Symphonic Picture of Porgy and Bess, and the Concerto in F with Philippe Entremont at the piano. I put on the headphones and laid the needle on the concerto.
These sounds were of the city. The bass line was concrete. The furious opening did a flyover of Manhattan — traffic, jazz clubs, skyscrapers (even before the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings). The lyrical slow movement landed you on a rooftop somewhere, alone with your thoughts for a few precious moments before you plunged into the tumult of Life again.
I took that ride over and over.
Coupled with the novels of the era, this was like making my own movie, a few years before Woody Allen was using Gershwin as his soundtrack for every other film.
My predisposition towards this music also had to do with a fascination for the sports stars of the day. My grandfather, born in 1900, was an athlete and coach, and introduced me to the 1920's via his newspaper clippings. His relatively minor exploits shared a Seattle sports page with what Ruth and Dempsey, Bill Tilden and Bobby Jones were doing on a vaster stage. And not that he cared much, but my grandfather was also a contemporary of Hemingway and Copland and Wolfe, and Gershwin. But I cared, very much, and was putting pieces together that influence the way I listen to and enjoy the Concerto in F. and all the rest today. Photos of my grandfather in his tennis whites, circa 1924, somehow granted me a connection to Jones at St. Andrews or the great lawn of Jay Gatsby's house.
Time has dimmed our memory of just how bright a star Gershwin was in a crowded artistic and athletic nebula. In the twenties, of all the giants in the Golden Age of Sports, none of them were photographed more than Gershwin. He was handsome as Douglas Fairbanks, with his slick-backed hair and enigmatic half-smile. Brought up on the streets of New York, relatively untutored in classical techniques, his fame came from the tunes that everyone knew by heart — his home-made orchestrations came from hastily borrowed books. And for anyone fascinated with the 1920's the Concerto in F still stands as a universal soundtrack, for a Yankees game, for a speakeasy, for a Fitzgerald novel. Take your pick, add your own.
And of course that goes for this music in general. Everyone has a set of experiences, associations, that are personal and indelible. Hold on to them. They'll always trump, for sheer meaning and joy, whatever truths a presenter, with the best intentions, tells you.