The Morning Forum of Los Altos’ 69th year ended on a musical note June 4 with Dr. Richard Kogan’s presentation on “The Mind and Music of George Gershwin.”
A graduate of Juilliard and Harvard Medical School, Kogan is clinical professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and artistic director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Program. The Boston Globe wrote that “Kogan has somehow managed to excel at the world’s two most demanding professions.” Through his lecture-recitals, he examines the lives of great composers through the lens of a psychiatrist.
According to Kogan, early on there was no indication that Gershwin would become one of America’s greatest musical treasures. He showed little promise in anything and was the terror of the family’s constantly changing neighborhoods. He stole, set fires and had no interest or aptitude in school. Kogan said that today, Gershwin would have been diagnosed with ADHD and put on a medication like Adderall.
Fortunately, one day when Gershwin was 10 and playing hooky, he heard a classmate playing the violin. He immediately decided that he would devote his life to music.
Gershwin’s love for music changed his behavior. The story of his remarkable success, Kogan explained, “exemplifies how music can transform children.”
Still a poor student, Gershwin left school at 15 and got a job plugging music for Tin Pan Alley. Convinced that he was destined to be a great composer, Kogan said, Gershwin played his compositions at every party he attended. At one of those parties, singer and actor Al Jolson asked permission to perform one of his numbers.
That piece, “Swanee,” sold more than a million copies and allowed Gershwin to quit his job and devote himself entirely to composing.
Gershwin’s older brother, Ira, whom Kogan described as “always the calm, organized influence in George’s life,” became his lyricist. When Gershwin was 25 and already a successful composer of popular music, Ira read an article reporting that bandleader Paul Whiteman was organizing a concert illustrating the role jazz was having on America’s new composers and would include something by George Gershwin. Gershwin had forgotten he had promised Whiteman he would give him a new piece to present. He had three weeks to compose something.
On his train ride to New York to start work on his new piece, the sound of the train gave Gershwin the concept that would inspire his first great symphonic work. When he arrived in New York, Kogan said, “the music just oozed out of him as he incorporated swinging syncopated rhythms” with jazz, pop and classical to create the masterpiece “Rhapsody in Blue.”
At this point in his talk, Kogan treated his audience to a dazzling performance of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which generated a rare standing ovation from the Morning Forum audience.
Two years after the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue,” Gershwin went to Paris to study with Maurice Ravel. But Ravel told him, “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”
While in Paris, Gershwin became inspired by the sounds of the Paris taxis, which he incorporated into his next great orchestral piece, “An American in Paris.”
Kogan said much of Gershwin’s genius was rooted in his hyperactivity and compulsive disorder, adding that his confidence in his genius was the result of a “narcissistic personality.” Gershwin compared himself to Leonardo Di Vinci and once told a taxi driver, “Drive carefully – you have the great Gershwin in your car.”
Despite his narcissism, Kogan said, Gershwin felt great empathy for the suffering of others. His brilliant opera “Porgy and Bess,” he noted, “required a deep emotional palette” and encompassed a huge expanse of topics including poverty, drug addiction and racism.
Jolson asked to play the lead – which would have guaranteed its success – but Gershwin insisted that the production feature an all-black cast, leading him to be referred to as “the Abraham Lincoln of Negro Music.”
While writing “Porgy and Bess,” Gershwin was suffering from great depression, probably the result, Kogan said, of the first symptoms of the undiagnosed brain tumor that would kill him just a few years later.
Kogan described Gershwin’s death at the age of 38 as “one of the great tragedies in music history.” In his short life, “he left us 650 songs, and dazzling concert pieces,” Kogan said. Even to the end, he was writing memorable music. His last song, “Love Is Here to Stay,” was fitting for a man whose music is certainly here to stay.
Kogan ended his presentation by playing a medley of songs from “Porgy and Bess,” a powerful reminder of why Gershwin’s music continues to both delight and awe.
The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. New members are invited to join. For membership details and more information, visit morningforum.org.