The Linking of Litton and Gershwin

by John Ardoin, Music Critic of The Dallas Morning News

Small wonder that Andrew Litton, the Dallas Symphony’s Music Director, feels close to George Gershwin. The parallels between the two musicians are many and remarkable.

Their grandparents immigrated to America from Russia, both men were born in New York City and both showed an easy and early affinity for the piano.

The major difference, of course, is that Gershwin went on to become one of America’s most beloved composers. Mr. Litton will be celebrating that difference Wednesday evening when he kicks off a new season of symphony concerts with a nonsubscription gala that consists of only 45 minutes of music — The Gershwin Songbook.

As Mr. Litton points out, this is a generic title that many artists from Ella Fitzgerald down have used to describe a collection of their favorite Gershwin tunes. But there was an actual song book put together by George himself at the urging of his friends.

They wanted him to give permanent form to some of the songs he would play for them by the hour. It was said back in the 1920s that all you needed to assure a party’s success was the name of a good bootlegger, a piano and Gershwin. Eventually, he made piano-onlyversions of 18 of his favorite songs. These were published in 1932 as The Gershwin Songbook in a handsome edition illustrated by painter Constantin Alajalov, which is now long out of print.

"All Gershwin actually did," Mr. Litton says, "was to write down one chorus of each song, so that the majority of the arrangements fill only two pages of music and take less than 60 seconds to play." Here, brevity was truly the soul of wit.

The story of The Gershwin Songbook now leaps forward nearly three decades. The late, legendary choreographer George Balanchine, who had worked with Gershwin in Hollywood in the 1930s, owned a copy of The Songbook. He happened to be a crack pianist as well. One evening while playing through The Songbook, he realized it was wonderful material for a dance work. He enlisted composer Hershey Kay to arrange the pieces for piano and orchestra; and Mr. Kay expanded the originals from a minute to, in several cases, more than three minutes each. The ballet Who Cares was born.

Mr. B, as he was affectionally known, said at the time – 1970 –that "George’s music is so natural for dancing, so easy to work with . . . I remember he spoke often to me about wanting to write for ballet. So I like to think that this is George’s ballet, the ballet we have done for him."

In the late ’70s, Mr. Litton was dating a ballerina from Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and he went to many of the company’s performances to see her dance. One of the ballets was Who Cares. It blew him away.

The story now moves on a half-dozen years. Mr. Litton is associate conductor of the National Symphony. He remembers Who Cares and decides to include it in a pops concert. The audience loves it, and Mr. Litton repeats this success with other orchestras. Gradually it became what he describes as “my party piece.” He believes Who Cares works very well in concert because "it’s just the right length. If it was any longer, you would begin to want something else to fill out the music."

In 1987, with London’s Royal Philharmonic, Mr. Litton made the first recording of the ballet, and that record led to next week’s performance. Having heard the CD, Dallas Symphony president Eugene Bonelli thought it would make both a great fund-raiser and a great curtain-raiser for the season.

Mr. Litton was more than willing to oblige, for he loves the ballet as well as the CD. It was this record that gave him a chance also to record Rhapsody in Blue. And, as Mr. Kay omitted four of the tunes from The Songbook, Mr. Litton added them to fill out the disc.

"I loved Gershwin’s music first – long before I knew why," Mr. Litton says. "The why came when I realized we were both from the same side of the tracks. What I idolized so much about him was the naturalness of everything he did and his great enthusiasm."

From all accounts there was nobody more enthusiastic about Gershwin than Gershwin – but in the most endearing sort of way. He loved to play for hours for anyone who would listen.

"I think that sort of unabashed self-confidence is fabulous," Mr. Litton continued. "Sure, there may have been some who groaned, ’Oh, what an ego,’ but I think it was less ego and more a question of needing to express his complete joy in music and his gifts."

"For me one of the great tragedies, along with the early deaths of Mozart and Schubert, was the fact we lost Gershwin in his 30s. I get frustrated that there are only so many Gershwin pieces to perform, and that’s it. Like all of the very best composers, Gershwin had a knack of taking the same notes everybody uses and putting them together in a way that grabs you and sticks with you."

While studying at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, Mr. Litton was required to give a recital. He chose to fulfill the requirement in an unusual way with a performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio and the original jazz-band version of Rhapsody in Blue. It was his first time to play Rhapsody in public.

Little did he know that a few years later, the piece would take him back to the roots he shared with Gershwin. By chance, Mr. Litton’s father, who speaks Russian, had become friends with Soviet conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov. Through the years, the senior Mr. Litton kept the conductor up to date on the musical development of his son. As Andrew Litton began to appear professionally as a pianist, an invitation arrived in 1979 from Russia’s state agency Gosconcerts.

He was asked to play Rhapsody twice in Moscow with Mr. Svetlanov and the U.S.S.R. State Symphony, as well as solo recitals in any two cities he wished. He chose Baku as one, for it is the city his mother’s family comes from.

In January 1980, the Littons en masse headed for Moscow. By chance this happened to be just weeks after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Suddenly here was this American playing Gershwin in Russia during a very tense period. The Associated Press saw it as a good news story, wrote it and sent it around the world. Andrew Litton’s career was officially and dramatically launched.

In his studio, Mr. Litton has framed a canceled check that belonged to Gershwin. It was a gift from his friend and fellow Gershwin addict Michael Feinstein. Mr. Litton says that sometimes it is easy to forget that great people really existed and led day-by-day lives like the rest of us. He says the Gershwin check is there to remind him that even a genius had to do mundane things like shop and pay bills.

Originally printed in the Dallas Morning News on August 28, 1994.
Copyright © 1994 Dallas Morning News. All rights reserved.