Weekly Meeting - February 12: The Progress of Porgy & Bess from Hill Auditorium to the Stage of the Metropolitan Opera

Speaker: Mark Clague, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Student Affairs at the  University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance [SMTD], is an Associate Professor of Musicology. He holds affiliate appointments elsewhere in the University in American Culture, African and Afro-American Studies, Non-Profit Management, and Entrepreneurship. He serves as director of research at SMTD and is co-director of its American Music Institute. His research interests focus on how music forges and shapes social relationships: the art of sound as simultaneously a transcendent emotional expression and an everyday tool for living.

Some years ago, SMTD entered into a long-term partnership with the Gershwin family to undertake a two-part initiative to reinvigorate the music of George and Ira Gershwin. The Gershwin Initiative is envisioned as giving equal emphasis to (1) a new scholarly edition of George and Ira’s creative work, and (2) educational opportunities for SMTD students to perform and learn about the Gershwins’ art.

Because of his premature death at age 38, George Gershwin never had the chance to revise and edit his own music.   While readily accessible in print and recordings, the scores and parts to many Gershwin works circulate in substandard formats. Even such notable scores as Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody in Blue are found in problematic editions. The Gershwin Initiative aims to produce definitive editions of all of the Gershwins’ output. Our speaker made a well-received presentation to the Club about the Gershwin Initiative in February of 2018.

The Gershwin Initiative’s attention of late has centered on Porgy & Bess.

Two years ago, after an intensive five-year effort, a draft version of the critical edition for that score was ready. What looks good on paper, though, often needs tweaking. The University Musical Society therefore presented a “test reading” of the tentative critical score at Hill Auditorium on February 17, 2018. That performance utilized the University Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Kenneth Kiesler, SMTD’s Director of Orchestras, and the combined choral ensembles of SMTD, prepared by Jerry Blackstone, to support a distinguished roster of professional soloists. Reliance on SMTD forces fulfilled the promise of educational opportunities which is an integral part of the Gershwin Initiative. The acknowledged competence of those forces allowed for a sustained focus on the new critical edition itself.

That 720-page scholarly performance edition saw instrumental pitches corrected, long-lost bars of music reintroduced, instrumental voicing recalibrated, and a snippet of dialogue returned to a key place in the three-act opera.

The UMS performance was both revelatory and a triumph. Howard Reich, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, was unstinting in his praise: “[L]isteners were in the hands of performers who understood the folkloric syntax of this music. … Thanks to newly clarified details of orchestration and the sterling performance of these young artists, one could marvel anew at the inner workings of Gershwin’s score. … One wondered if the orchestral accompaniment ever has sounded more texturally lucid than this.”

The Metropolitan Opera in New York City opened its 2019-2020 season on September 23 with Porgy & Bess. It was the work’s first staging there in 37 years. Utilizing the critical edition of the score prepared by the Gershwin Initiative, this new production received rave critical reviews. Our speaker will describe the score’s evolution from concert reading in Ann Arbor to audience success in New York City.