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Gershwin the klezmer

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A revival at Park Square Theatre looks at George Gershwin’s Jewish roots

By MAX SPARBER

It has been almost two decades since The Soul of Gershwin first appeared in the Twin Cities. It was first performed as a concert at the St. Paul JCC, titled Gershwin the Klezmer and performed by the Minnesota Klezmer Band.

The current show remains true to its original conception, which was to explore the musical roots of George Gershwin, whom creator Joe Vass calls the “greatest composer of the 20th century” — a viewpoint that is widely shared, as Gershwin regularly tops the lists of most important songwriters of the last century.

The Soul of Gershwin, through Dec. 21 at Park Square Theatre. Features (l to r) Maud Hixson, Geoffrey Jones and Maggie Burton.

The Soul of Gershwin, through Dec. 21 at Park Square Theatre. Features (l to r) Maud Hixson, Geoffrey Jones and Maggie Burton. (Photo by Petronella J. Yisma)

But Vass noticed that, while music writers were adept at finding Gershwin’s roots in classical European music and American popular jazz, there was an entire influence that went undiscussed: Jewish music, especially cantorial compositions and the Jewish social music we now call klezmer.

In an interview with American Jewish World, Vass explained that he was in the midst of rediscovering this music himself. He was long a fan of Gershwin, and “the influence seemed obvious to me.” Vass had just done a similar concert exploring the Jewish roots of composer Kurt Weill, and 1998 would be the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s birth, and so the timing seemed right to revisit Gershwin’s Jewish influences.

These were abundant. Growing up in Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century, Gershwin was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and with his older brother Ira (who later wrote lyrics for his songs) spent much of his childhood around New York’s Yiddish theater district, with George occasionally appearing in Yiddish-language plays. George reportedly had little interest in music until he attended a Jewish music recital and was entranced by the sound of the violin. He started to learn the piano and was a quick study, and soon proved to have a near omnivorous taste in music, and an ability to synthesize his influences into popular song.

The Soul of Gershwin is particular about its song selection, as it has been since it was called Gershwin the Klezmer, focusing on songs with identifiable Jewish content and then highlighting that. The sound is a little fuller, thanks to the addition of a trumpet, and the production will look a little different at the Park Square Theatre. “The theater is doing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Vass explains. “We’re using that set. They built a very three-dimensional set, with stairways and platforms. So this production is going to be very three-dimensional in its visuals.”

But the show remains true to its original conception, which Vass describes in this way: “There’s so much negativity aimed at Jews. I wanted to respond with something that says what a great thing it is to be a Jew. We need that.”

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The Soul of Gershwin plays Dec. 2-31 at Park Square Theatre. Visit parksquaretheatre.org for tickets and showtimes. To learn more about Joe Vass and his work, visit josephvass.net.

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