Meeting Notes for February 7, 2018: George Gershwin Rediscovered

President John rang the Rotary bell, opening our meeting, and motioned to Paul Smith for the Inspiration. Paul came to the podium and immediately declared, “I detest politics.” However, after lamenting most of the presidents “in my lifetime,” he expanded on the legacy of one “I have recently come to admire. His real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant…the ‘Ulysses S.’ was a mistake. He was a quiet man, and loath to boast. Mark Twain said that ‘he could stay silent in three languages.’ I admire his integrity. He died of an exceedingly painful neck and head cancer, but didn’t evince pain, except in sleep.” Thank you, Paul, for an inspirational summation of a president now revered for his honesty and innovative policies.

Joe Diederich, “our newest song leader,” then took the podium. “I used to be in a group,” he explained, donning a black leather jacket. The song: “Under the Boardwalk,” made famous by The Drifters in 1964, and made famous again by Joe and Tom Strode. The assembly sang the refrain, ‘under the bow-ard-walk,’ while Joe had all the lyrical fun: ‘out of the sun; we’ll be havin’ some fun; people walkin’ above; we’ll be fallin’ in love.’ WOW!

John thanked Joe and Tom as well as all Rotary volunteers, then welcomed guests and visiting Rotarians: Carter; Bess Owsen, Millie Danielson introduced her daughter, and John introduced both his wife Ruthie and Tom Branham, music director at First Presbyterian.

Then another inspiration: Jake McLouth gave us an update on our Youth Exchange students in Chile, Mexico, and Poland. He also introduced us to Pioneer High School student Eleanor ‘Lina’ Schram. “We’re very happy to be sending Lina to Brazil,” Jake added. “She is the ambassador of our Club this year.” Your reporter, after pondering the happy return of the name ‘Eleanor,’ considered the decided achievements of our current exchange students. Ambassadors, Rotary’s public front-line face to the world; the room’s resounding applause said it all. In conclusion, Jake thanked Mary Jean Raab for all her assistance.

John then reminded everyone of Huron High School student, Adele, who is still in need of a host family. “Her current host family situation will expire by March 1,” John explained. “She will need a new family, in the Huron school district, from that time until June.” Adele, from Czech Republic, is a basketball player on the Huron team. Please contact John if you would like to host Adele in your home this spring, or know of a family who would.

Clague “rediscovers” George Gershwin

Dennis Powers came to the podium to deliver the introduction to our speaker, Dr. Mark Clague, Associate Professor of Musicology, School of Music, Theatre & Dance at the University of Michigan. And a fabulous introduction it was. A music lover himself, Dennis painted a visual picture of the Golden Age that was the early 20th century in American song. Names and terms rang like those of prophets – George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, The Great American Songbook (what should really be playing eternally in Elon Musk’s orbiting red motor), Aaron Copland, “Porgy and Bess,” etc. To quote Dennis: “Their songs resonate in our collective consciousness…Nine years ago, Todd Gershwin, the great nephew of Ira and George Gershwin, reached out to the School and proposed a collaborative undertaking: the preparation of a critical edition of their entire artistic work.” The saga of how that came to be would pepper Dr. Clague’s address.

“The Gershwin’s captured the pulse of New York City around them,” Dr. Clague began. “They were ‘more American’ than anyone else – so why the [absence] of a critical edition of their work until now? Those of Mozart and Beethoven have been done numerous times.” Perhaps the early death of George, of a brain tumor in 1937, or the nature of the brothers’ music as ‘popular.’ No matter the reasons, a catalyst came suddenly from a surprising source: “Todd Gershwin, nephew of George and Ira (and a 1997 U-M graduate) called me one day to say that he would like to collaborate on a critical edition of their work. I thought, OKAY.” Clague then described the relationship of the Gershwin family with the University; for instance, there is a Gershwin presently attending as a freshman. Clearly, the Gershwin family had decided to firm up their musical legacy after suffering a succession of botched compilations. With the U-M they knew they had a persevering and trustworthy partner.

Clague then described that anthem of Gotham, “Rhapsody in Blue”: “People in the 20s heard it primarily performed by theater orchestras.” In speaking of the piece and others, like “Fascinating Rhythm,” he observed, “Unlike Shakespeare, their rhyme schemes have a built-in asymmetry…George and Ira saw [musical] opportunities others didn’t.” About George, Clague noted, “He was incredibly detailed in his scores. And he knew when to break the rules.” A wonderful moment occurred when he played a 1924 recording of Fred and Adele Astaire singing “Fascinating Rhythm” from the play, “Lady Be Good.” It was the Astaire’s first collaboration with the Gershwins, one that would propel dancer-crooner Fred to Hollywood and a legendary partnership with Ginger Rogers. For Fred, however, his earlier work in theater with sister Adele, who would marry Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932, would remain a favorite period.

An audacious innovator, George loved to insert humor into the mix. Clague regaled his audience with the story of how George employed a chorus of taxi horns as an embellishment in “An American in Paris,” He showed a photo of the composer handling the horns, a photo that would prove crucial to his team’s effort to determine the correct pitch of each in the piece – “which is now correct for the first time in 70 years!”

In conclusion, Dr. Clague stressed the cultural importance of “Porgy and Bess” in “highlighting race relations in America. “The opera premiered on Broadway, not the Metropolitan Opera, despite a $5,000 commission from the Met. George decided on Broadway because of the Met’s requirement to use its contracted (white) singers, who would have been in blackface.” Thus, for the Broadway production, African-American actors and singers were used. The few roles for whites would be those of police officers, hustlers, and others with whom Porgy, Bess, and their friends have to contend.

Hearty applause followed Dr. Clague’s speech. No doubt, many in the room will eagerly await unfolding developments in the Gershwin Initiative.

John adjourned the meeting with JET: Join leaders, Exchange ideas; Take action.”


Weekly Meeting Statistics
A total of 86 Rotarians learned about the Gershwin family in anticipation of the Porgy and Bess opera coming soon. We also had two visiting Rotarians (Carter Good of Ypsilanti and B. Yawson of Ann Arbor North) and three guests. Before lunch, there were meetings of the International Humanitarian Projects Committee (thirteen Rotarians) and the Membership Committee (six Rotarians). Also reported were offsite meetings of the Golf & Tennis Outing Committee. Eight members met on January 23 and two met on January 23.

Makeup Cards for Roving Rotarians:
Not really a makeup but Rotarian Jennifer Fike attended the local Kiwanis meeting on February 5. She accompanied guest speaker Manja Holland, daughter of past president Maurita Holland. They are colleagues at the Great Lakes Region of the National Wildlife Federation, which is housed here in Ann Arbor. Manja, a community educator, spoke about the “Global Pollinator Decline.” She described the crucial role pollinators play in our food supply; one third of our food is dependent upon pollinators, primarily honeybees. Thanks to Jennifer and Manja for “pollinating” Kiwanis with Rotarians.