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Critic's Notebook: Who owns Gershwin?

April 30, 2011 |  2:00 pm

Who owns “Porgy and Bess,” “Rhapsody in Blue” and the Piano Concerto in F? Two new recordings from Germany and Austria of these great Gershwin scores raises all kinds of questions.

“Porgy,” especially.  It is a quintessential American opera that Americans have never quite known what to do with. Do we treat it as musical or grand opera or throw up our operatic hands altogether and turn the score over to jazz musicians and pop singers? Should we water down the racist language and situations or confront them head on?

All eyes, and ears, will thus be on American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., this August when it puts on a new version of "Porgy" refashioned by playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray, directed by Diane Paulus (whose production of “Hair” was a recent Broadway hit) and starring Audra McDonald as Bess. 

In the above 1998 clip, McDonald and Michael Tilson Thomas clearly owned -- lock, stock and barrel -- “My Man’s Gone Now” from “Porgy and Bess.” That's the model, or at least one overpowering model.  But the Gershwin style question is not that simple, and it is one that I address in a Sunday critic’s notebook.

-- Mark Swed