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Gershwin: Love Is Sweeping the Country

My Wolf Trap concert ends with a bang: Gershwin’s “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” done in its original arrangement—a bracing two-step. The song comes from “Of Thee I Sing,” the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize. But the award was given only to the book-and-lyrics team of Morrie Ryskind, George. S. Kaufman, and Ira Gershwin, not to the composer, George Gershwin. At that time, the Pulitzer was still strictly a literary prize—no musicians allowed.

Gershwin is officially my favorite composer, though I am musically polyamorous and could never really choose just one. Still, I need to have an answer for that age-old question, and it’s simpler to come up with a name people recognize. Among Gershwin’s stage works, “Of Thee I Sing” goes to the head of the class. It is number two on my list of Best Classic Broadway Shows. (What is #1, you ask? “The Boys From Syracuse.” Not a better work of art, perhaps, but loony and smart in a way that always speaks to me.)

As you probably remember, “Of Thee I Sing” tells the story of a Presidential election marked by subterfuge, manipulation, foreign intrigue, and dirty politics. Yet the story is imbued with charm, wit, and a light spirit—a perfect antidote to the grimy circus of the last twelve months. Wintergreen, the politician who ultimately wins the election (his slogan is “The flavor lasts”), is running on the Love Platform, just the message the nation craves.

I remember hearing Lin-Manuel Miranda at last year’s Tony Award ceremony when he read his acceptance in the form of a poem—“ And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love/cannot be killed or swept aside,/Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.” I pretty much lost it when I heard those words. This is the philosophy that has always sustained me, especially during rough times. “Love Is Sweeping the Country” echoes Lin-Manuel’s sentiment, only in a fizzier and daffier way. How sweet to think of a country so filled with love that bitter adversaries are suddenly gazing at one another like besotted fools. And who can resist a song whose first lyric is “Why are people gay/All the night and day?” Certainly not me.

The Wolf Trap shows are June 3 and 4, and I am extremely excited about them. I even have a sensational and appropriate encore whose identity I cannot divulge right now. Come to the Barns at WT and find out for yourself. Join me and Joseph Li—and Madison Leonard—and Annie Rosen—and Jonas Hacker—and Michael Hawk—for the love-feast you need right now.

Gershwin: Hi-Ho!

No sooner has the hurly-burly of the New York season ended than the summer season creeps up from behind, screaming for attention. I just ran a musical marathon that ended with four huge projects in the space of five weeks (in three cities). But pretty soon I’ll be off to Wolf Trap to do something Kim Witman titled Four of a Kind. Why? Well, it has songs from four countries, sung by four singers, and accompanied by four hands. Mine, and those of Joseph Li. I met Joseph last summer and quickly realized I was in the presence of musical royalty. I found that his heart was as warm as his music, and following a strong instinct I decided that we should work on a program together. I knew his playing only from a few YouTube clips, but I had a hunch that amounted to a certainty.

Joe and I just spent some time together in New York working out our duets (played from scores) and our two-piano song accompaniments (improvised, usually with nothing more explicit than “You play high in this one, and I’ll stay low”). Joe is a superb partner, able to hear the onset of a ritardando in the space of two notes, or a change of timbre and articulation the moment it happens. I’ve played with some great pianists: John Musto, Michael Barrett, Chris Reynolds, and now Joseph Li have all made me feel like Ginger Rogers to their Fred Astaire. But wait, not backwards and in heels. No, it’s more like being a pair of Nicholas Brothers:

One of the songs we’re doing at Wolf Trap is Gershwin’s “Hi-ho.” George and Ira wrote it for the movie “Shall We Dance,” and it finds the brothers at the top of their game. Musically complex (an early listener called it “practically a piano sonata”) and lyrically adroit, “Hi-ho” is a true Gershwin masterpiece. But it was simply too long to be included in the movie. It would have needed an expensive, elaborate set, and Hollywood was not seduced by its sheer musical brilliance. Tony Bennett recorded it as a sexy soft-shoe, but William Sharp and I exploited its careening energy when we made our Gershwin CD in 1990. I love Tony B., but I think our “Hi-ho” flies higher. And when Joe and I played it last weekend, my piano started to give off smoke. Watch out, world.

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