News Column

George and Ira Gershwin get scholarly

September 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 26--Like so many works created for the American musical theater, the songs of George and Ira Gershwin were crafted for particular performances, then revised as necessary for later revivals. That may have helped give them their distinctive freshness, but it also created a headache for subsequent performers -- a profusion of manuscripts and versions that reflect the pieces' checkered histories.

Happily, there may soon be order brought into that chaos -- although "soon" is used here in its academic sense, meaning "within a matter of decades." A new project spearheaded by the two Gershwin estates and the University of Michigan aims to establish a complete scholarly edition of the Gershwins' music, along the lines of those that currently exist for Bach, Beethoven and other greats.

Michael Strunsky, the San Francisco nephew of Ira and Leonore Gershwin, who is the trustee for that side of the family, said the problematic state of the existing scores helped push the project forward.

"Much of the music that comes down to a conductor is either copied wrong, or encumbered by notes from previous musicians," he said. "And mistakes seem to get carried forward."

Strunsky said the project would be overseen by at least three boards, including an administrative board and a board of musical experts -- "people who know the difference between a B-flat and a B-sharp, which I don't."

One of those experts will be Michael Tilson Thomas, who has been performing the Gershwins' music for years. He has a keen sense of how uncertain the performing materials can be.

"In some cases," he said, "they go all the way back to the original performances. In the jazz band version of the 'Rhapsody in Blue,' for example, the materials are photocopies of the parts used by the original players in Paul Whiteman's band.

"Sometimes it doesn't even say what the instruments are. It just gives the player's name, and you have to work backwards to figure out what the instrument is."

Thomas said that he performs the Gershwins' music from his own scores, which he's corrected and edited over the years. But he wants to make sure that knowledge is more widely available.

"If you grew up hearing traditional performances of the music, as I did, there is a certain way of doing things that sounds correct, and that's what I do.

"But the performing tradition should not be dependent on a few people now living who have a connection to this. It should be nailed down in the score."

Also, he says, there's no telling what a scholarly dragnet might produce. "It's possible that in another sweep of the archives, there may be more little treasures unearthed. Even to have a few new bars that have the Gershwin savor would be wonderful."

Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: jkosman@sfchronicle.com

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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