Deconstructing Gershwin

The man really did have rhythm. George Gershwin packed such an extraordinary volume of creative songwriting and musical composing into a life cut tragically short at the age of 38 that it's difficult to imagine the American popular music genre without him. No "Rhapsody in Blue?" No "An American in Paris?" What would filmmaker Woody Allen have done when making his masterpiece movie "Manhattan," which relied so heavily on Gershwin for its soundtrack?

And we haven't even gotten yet to talking about his opera "Porgy and Bess," earlier songs like his first big hit "Swanee," and the aforementioned "I Got Rhythm."

Gershwin's life and work will be the subject of the next "First Wednesdays" series of lectures that are sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council and hosted locally by the Mark Skinner Library. The program, "An Evening with George Gershwin," will be presented Wednesday, Feb. 6, at the First Congregational Church in Manchester Village. The event is free of charge and starts at 7 p.m.

The program on Gershwin will feature Montpelier-based pianist Michael Arnowitt, who will be making his second appearance locally with "First Wednesdays." Some may remember a presentation he did on the work of Beethoven, the classical composer, about two years ago.

This time around, Arnowitt will explore the music and the times in which Gershwin worked. Born in 1898, Gershwin began writing in the musical sweatshops of Tin Pan Alley while still a teenager, and burst into prominence in the Prohibition-era "Roaring Twenties." He maintained his productive clip and creative output until shortly before his death in 1937.

As his work progressed, he began experimenting with merging classical influences into his jazz- and popular music-inspired earlier work, becoming, in effect, one of the early crossover artists.

His presentation will be a hybrid of discussion about Gershwin's life and performances of some of his major compositions, like "An American in Paris" and "Rhapsody in Blue," Arnowitt said earlier this week.

"I'll be playing some complete pieces of Gershwin and interspersed with that will be some talk about the arc of his life," he said. "There'll also be some exploring and demonstrating thing on the piano about what makes his music tick."

One of Gershwin's main legacies was his ability to blend influences from the world of classical music with those of popular jazz. Arnowitt has also traveled deeply in both genres. His extensive background includes years of international concert performances, a 26 year-long project on Beethoven's piano sonatas and an award-winning documentary movie about his life and music, "Beyond Eighty-eight Keys." He has made several recordings in both the worlds of classical music and jazz.

In 1998, he presented a program on Gershwin as part of a centennial anniversary of his birth, and from that sprang an interest that led to him delving further into his music, Arnowitt said.

At the core of Gershwin's appeal is a positive, confident quality that his compositions project, Arnowitt said.

"There's something about listening to music that is so uplifting and has a buoyant, positive quality to it that's very attractive to people," he said. "It's rare."

Arnowitt will deconstruct several of Gershwin's pieces and explain how he made some of the melodies and rhythms exciting and dramatic, he said.

This will be the third time Arnowitt has made this presentation on Gershwin, having performed it before in Montpelier and Middlebury, he said.

"I'll be telling lots of stories about his life and characters he met in New York City and Hollywood and Paris," Arnowitt said. "I think people - in addition to the music - will find the anecdotes pretty entertaining."

For more information about the upcoming and future "First Wednesdays" events, call the library at 802-362-2607, or visit For more information about the Vermont Humanities Council, check


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