Jewish Perspectives

The Jewish influence on American popular and classical music is implicit in many of Orin Grossman’s presentations. The overwhelming number of Jewish musicians and lyricists who created the Broadway and Hollywood musical is well known and intriguing. In addition, those composers influential in creating an American sound for Classical music were also predominantly Jewish-Americans. How did these artists’ Jewish heritage influence their art? What characteristics might they have shared that led to the explosion of great music that defined an American musical contribution.

Dr. Grossman has developed a number of presentations in which he examines some of the ways Jewish music and Jewish-American cultural history, particularly from the first half of the 20th-century, influenced the great Jewish-American songwriters and composers such as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and many others. In doing so he shines a light on the enormous accomplishments of these composers and he deepens our understanding of this important aspect of the Jewish-American experience.

1.  “I Know How to Be Successful—Write Jewish tunes”: Jewish American Composers

This presentation provides a broad overview of the influence of Jewish American composers on American music, both popular and classical. From the songs of Broadway and Hollywood to the symphonies of the concert hall, Jewish composers have created what we now consider “American” sounding music. From the ballets of Aaron Copland to the creation of the Great American Song-Book, the contributions are immense. This presentation will discuss the background to this phenomenon and explore reasons for it that are deeply embedded in the Jewish American experience. The presentation will include a performance of one of George Gershwin’s masterpieces; either Rhapsody in Blue or the Gershwin Song-Book.

2.  Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, an American masterpiece

I’d like to write of the melting pot, of New York City itself, with its blend of native and immigrant strains. This would allow for many kinds of music, black and white, Eastern and Western, and would call for a style that should achieve out of this diversity, an artistic unity. New York is a meeting place, a rendezvous of the nations. I’d like to catch the rhythms of these interfusing peoples, to show them clashing and blending. I’d especially like to blend the humor of it with the tragedy of it.

GEORGE GERSHWIN, late 1920’s

George Gershwin (1898-1937) was a true rarity in American music—someone at home both in popular and classical, or concert, music. It was Gershwin’s special contribution to create concert works out of melodies and rhythms that come out of the popular music of his day— Broadway ballads, ragtime, Latin dance rhythms, and the Blues. This urge to plunge into, and combine, all aspects of popular music had a particularly Jewish origin and this presentation explores this connection. This presentation will demonstrate just how this process works in his first and perhaps most popular concert work, Rhapsody in Blue. The presentation concludes with a complete solo piano performance of Gershwin’s great masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue.

3.  “S’Wonderful”:   Jewish Composers and the Great American Songbook

The 1920’s saw the establishment of a new American spirit on Broadway. Inspired by Jerome Kern’s Princess Theatre shows of the late teens, a new young group of mostly Jewish composers and lyricists threw off the European trappings of former shows and created the American Musical. Brassy and irreverent, these shows featured such composers and lyricists as Rogers and Hart, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, and, of course, George and Ira Gershwin. This presentation explores the specific Jewish nature of the contributions of these brilliant artists and concentrates on the songs and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin from the 1920’s—songs that remain part of our living heritage. The songs will be performed in Gershwin’s own piano arrangements—arrangements Gershwin created to give the public a sense of how he played his own songs at private parties. In addition, we will hear a number of Gershwin songs in arrangements recorded by Gershwin himself, including a surprising and sparkling version of “Someone To Watch Over Me.

4.  Porgy and Bess—the Great American Opera

Porgy and Bess was George Gershwin’s greatest labor of love and his most controversial masterpiece. Conceived as an opera, it opened on Broadway in 1935 to tepid and confused reviews. It was attacked on all sides for its racial themes, its dark plot, the use of operatic devices such as recitative, and its length. One critic, noting (with displeasure) the Jewish influence on the music, referred to the “impurity of its [the opera’s] sources…a highly unsavory stirring-up-together of Israel and Africa”. Yet the opera contains Gershwin’s greatest music, some of which is familiar to everyone. “Summertime”, “Bess, You Is my Woman Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” are among the most familiar and beautiful melodies of Gershwin’s career. This presentation explores the connection between Gershwin’s Jewish background and Porgy and Bess, and explores the fascinating history of its life on the stage. It will include recordings from the original cast of 1935 and a live performance of famous highlights from the opera in a special arrangement by the great American pianist and Gershwin specialist, Earl Wild.

5.  Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, a Friendship in Music

Leonard Bernstein met Aaron Copland in 1937. Bernstein was 19, beginning his junior year at Harvard College. Aaron Copland was an established composer of 37, living in New York City. He had not yet composed the works for which he is most famous today—the series of ballets Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, and Billy the Kid—but he was a leader of the new young composers group based in New York City. Their meeting initiated a fifty-year friendship in which the older composer served as father figure, composition advisor, mentor and friend. Their Jewish backgrounds informed their musical choices, particularly in the creation of an “American” sound for classical music. This presentation explores the influence of their Jewish heritage on their music and traces the course of this influential friendship. It concludes with a performance of a striking example of their early collaboration—Leonard Bernstein’s piano arrangement of Aaron Copland’s first great orchestral composition in his popular style—El Salon Mexico.

Scholar/Artist in Residence Opportunities

As both a scholar and performer, Dr. Grossman is able to provide exciting opportunities for those organizations that sponsor either scholar-in-residencies or artist-in-residencies. The following are just a few of the possibilities, as any residency may include a variety of lectures, presentations and concerts tailored to the needs and wishes of the presenting organization.

     A. George Gershwin, the man and the composer

The residency would concentrate on George Gershwin’s unique contributions to American music and focus on the Jewish American experience that informs his cultural attitudes. The residency would include a solo piano recital featuring Rhapsody in Blue, selections from Porgy and Bess, and many of his most famous popular songs in his own piano arrangements.

     B. Jewish Americans and their contribution to American Music     

This residency explores the influence of Jewish thought and music on a number of important American composers including George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. The presentation includes the Jewish influence on a number of important composers including George Gershwin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. The concert includes music by all three composers.


Reactions to Orin Grossman's Performance

On behalf of The Congregation For Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County, I want to thank you for the extraordinary evening that you provided for our members and their guests.

You shared so generously your wealth of information about the Gershwins, other composers, and the music styles of earlier eras that played so much a part of what they've left us; all of that, interspersed with your thrilling playing, and ending the program with "The Rhapsody In Blue". Finally, your remaining after the program to patiently answer questions from the audience was particularly special.

Once again, thank you for an unforgettable experience.


Lynne Leibowitz