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WSO Concert Features Music by Jewish Composer Gershwin and by Shoshtakovich, Who Risked Life Against Soviets To Save Jews

by Rhonda Spivak February 10, 2016

On Feb 24-Feb 25, the Winnipeg Symphony presents the music of Gershwin and Shoshtakowitz,  played  which will no doubt be of particular interest to the Jewish community.
 
Gershwin, a New York Jewish composer shook the music world with his now iconic jazz-infused Rhapsody in Blue, which will be featured in the Concert goers will also get to enjoy Gershwin’s rarely played Second Rhapsody in the WSO debut of exciting pianist Sara Davis Buechner.
 

Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898 as Jacob Gershwine but he changed the spelling of his surname to "Gershwin" after he became a professional musician.

 

He was named after his grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, who had served for 25 years as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army in order to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew. His mother Roza (Rose), a Ukrainian Jew from Vilnius,  moved with her family to New York fearing increasing antisemitism in Russia. Gershwin's father Moishe  followed Rose as soon as he had the means to do so and  Gershowitz changed his surname to Gershwine  around, the time of his marriage to Rose.

 

George Gershwin grew up around New York's Yiddish Theater District, frequenting the local Yiddish theaters, and appeared onstage on occasion as an extra.He wasn't interested in music until he was 10 years old, when his parents bought a second hand piano for lessons for his older brother Ira.To his parents' surprise, it was George, a natural talent, who spent more time playing the piano and sought out piano teachers to mentor him and eventually  was mentored by Charles Hambitzer. Hambitzer wrote to his sister about Gershwin, “I have a new pupil who will make his mark if anybody will. The boy is a genius.”

 

Until Gershwin's untimely death in 1918 at the age of 38, Hambitzer remained Gershwin's musical mentor,   introducing him to music of the European classical tradition, and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts.  After the concerts, the young Gershwin would return home and essentially try to play completely from recall, at the piano, the music  without sheet music. After dropping out of school at age 15, Gershwin played in several New York nightclubs, and from 1920 to 1924, Gershwin  wrote compositions for an annual production put on by George White. The bandleader, Paul Whiteman, asked Gershwin to create a jazz number that would elevate the whole genre. Legend has it that Gershwin actually  forgot about  Whiteman's request until he read a newspaper article announcing the fact that Whiteman’s latest concert would feature a new Gershwin composition.  Gershwin wrote at a manic pace to meet the looming deadline and composed his famous groundbreaking work “Rhapsody in Blue.”

 

In 1930, Gershwin was invited to Holllywood and contracted by Fox Film Corporation to compose the music for the movie Delicious, a romantic comedy . In New York, Gershwin began working on a full score of the Second Rhapsody on March 14, 1931, and completed the score on May 23. He was proud of this work, and commented: "In many respects, such as orchestration and form, it is the best thing I have written" 

 

But Gershwin was furious when the Fox Film Corporation only used six minutes of the composition (titled "Manhatton Rhapsody), cutting over half of the original score. Gershwin only again worked in Hollywood seven years later.

 

Gershwin's Second Rhapsody received its premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Serge Koussevitsky on January 29, 1932, with the composer himself playing the piano part. 

 

The form of the Second Rhapsody that will be heard in the WSO concert is a re-orchestrated version by Robert McBride created fourteen years after Gershwin's death. McBride was assigned by Frank Campbell-Watson (the music editor for Gershwin's publisher New World Music) to re-score the piece.

 

The WSO concert will also feature  Dimitri Shostakovich 's  "Symphony No. 12 in D minor (The Year 1917)."  Shostakovich “celebrated” the Soviet authorities with a populist symphony that shakes its fist in irony.

 

 

The Jerusalem  Post wrote an article about  Shostakovich , who was born in 1906, referring to him as "The Gentile Jewish composer" since he railed against antisemitism throughout his life and took personal risks to save Jews. Shostakovich was witness to Stalin's anti-Semitic campaign that would culminate in a plan of mass deportations and false accusations that Jewish doctors were  acting on behalf of American and Jewish interests and trying to kill off the Soviet leadership. The campaign would end only when Stalin died, but while it was on, Shostakovich courageously composed "From Jewish Folk Poetry." He wrote: "I could see anti-Semitism all around me. Jews became a symbol for me. All of man's defenselessness was concentrated in them."  

 

The composer took great personal risk by hiding one Jewish refugee from the Soviet authorities, as his parents had done in Tsarist times. He intervened on behalf of  a Jewish sculptor who had been summoned to the war front, such that Soviet authorities moved the artist to cultural duties. After the leading Yiddish Theater actor  was assassinated at Stalin's instigation, and the Jewish the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was arrested, Shostakovich endangered his own life and wrote to  the head of the Soviet security services, to plead for his release. Thankfully Stalin died and Weinberg was released.

 

Later in 1961 in his 13th symphony, Shostakovich chose to put the poem "Babi Yar" ( which includes references to Tsarist pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair, and Anne Frank ) as a way to condemn anti-Semitism unequivocally. Moreover, Shostakovich personally intervened to save Jewish friends. He took great personal risk by hiding one Jewish refugee from the Soviet authorities, as his parents had done in Tsarist times. He intervened on behalf of  a Jewish sculptor who had been summoned to the war front, such that Soviet authorities moved the artist to cultural duties. After the leading Yiddish Theater actor  was assassinated at Stalin's instigation, and the Jewish the composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, was arrested, Shostakovich endangered his own life and wrote to  the head of the Soviet security services, to plead for his release. Thankfully Stalin died and Weinberg was released.

 

Shostakovich  found himself keenly attracted to Jewish folk music as he said "it can appear to be happy  while at the same time it is profoundly tragic" 

 

The WSO Concert will open with Juno Award winner Vivian Fung's music, Dust Devels, which the composer has described as a " journey of emotional swirls in my mind, sometimes calm, but more often than not, full of raw and intense energy. 
 
Tickets can be purchased online at https://wso.ca/gershwin/
 
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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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