On June 7th and 8th, the Claremont Chorale and Chorale Bel Canto combine singers to present the final concert of this season, America Sings! Today, the conductors describe the second half of the concert. Scroll to the right to see the sidebar to details about the two performances of this concert. We look forward to seeing you there!
By Gregory Norton and Stephen Gothold
The second half of the program is given over to music from Porgy and Bess, an “American folk opera” by George Gershwin (1898-1937), based on a novel by DuBose Heyward (1885-1940). It opened in 1935, two years before Gershwin's death at age 38. In its time it was both lauded and criticized for its then-groundbreaking treatment of African-American life. As is true with so much of Gershwin's music, Porgy and Bess lives in a musical space between popular song and the concert hall. Some of its tunes have become as much a part of the American Songbook as any of the composer's efforts for Tin Pan Alley.
The story is set in 1930s South Carolina and focuses on life in a fictitious sea-side slum, Catfish Row. Central to the story is the dubious romance of Porgy, a cripple, and Bess, a woman with a past, and a slate of very colorful characters and situations.
The story first reached the stage as a play in 1927, adapted by DuBose Heyward and his wife. Spirituals were inserted into the play, which ran for over a year. George Gershwin read the novel, and felt there was the potential for a “folk opera.” Among those showing interest in expanding the music of the play was Al Jolson, but nothing came of it. Then in the fall of 1933, Gershwin and Heyward signed a contract to write the opera. The two collaborators went to Folly Beach, South Carolina, to get a feel for the reality of life in the black south.
While originally intending to incorporate spirituals and work songs into the opera, Gershwin ultimately decided to write original music based on rhythmic and structural models of traditional music. The result was a four-hour opera about African-Americans, based on a novel by a white southern gentleman, set to music by an American Jew. Dubose Heyward and George’s brother Ira both contributed lyrics to the score.
The show opened on Broadway in 1935, by then trimmed to a little over three hours, and ran for 135 performances. A tour to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington D.C. followed. It was during the performances in Washington that the cast, led by the original Porgy, Todd Duncan, protested the segregation of the audience in the National Theatre. Management finally gave in, and that venue saw its first-ever integrated audience.
Many revivals and adaptions were mounted over the next forty years, none apparently able to improve upon the original. There was even a production in Denmark, where the all-white cast performed the piece in blackface. Finally, in 1976, Houston Grand Opera mounted its version of Gershwin’s original score (before the Broadway cuts). The production was a great success, and has been produced around the world ever since.
It is noteworthy that in 1959 an adaption of Porgy and Bess was made into a feature film, starring Sidney Poitier as Porgy and Dorothy Dandridge as Bess (neither actually sang their roles). The story was abridged and the score was re-orchestrated. The Gershwin estate was so disappointed with the film that it was removed from further release in 1974.
We are pleased to present this marvelous music in the concert version, with the stunning orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett.