Kevin Cole celebrates Gershwin on the 88s
When Kevin Cole sits down to play Friday night at PianoForte Studios, he’ll be doing double duty for the cause to which he has devoted his life: the music of George Gershwin.
As the country’s leading piano interpreter of Gershwin’s work, Cole will show listeners how Gershwin’s music ought to sound at the piano, an aesthetic that eludes more pianists than one might think.
But Cole will be extending Gershwin’s legacy in another way, for this rare solo performance will serve as a benefit for “Gershwin’s Magic Key,” a theatrical/symphonic concert that will receive its world premiere next April at the Kennedy Center in Washington with the National Symphony Orchestra. Presented by the Chicago-based non-profit Classical Kids Music Education, “Gershwin’s Magic Key” will tell the story of the great composer – the orchestra appearing with a pianist and two actors – just as the Classical Kids organization has done with the lives and music of Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.
For the first time, though, the spotlight will be on an American composer, and one with deep ties to jazz.
“We’re usually pushing these dead Europeans,” says Cole, who years ago approached Classical Kids executive producer and artistic director Paul Pement about taking on Gershwin.
“After he learned that I was working with the George Gershwin family, that I was out on our for two years with the show I created for them called ‘Here to Stay,’ a multimedia show I did with Sylvia McNair, he said, ‘You know, I want to pursue this.'”
And so Pement has. Cole isn’t creating or performing in “Gershwin’s Magic Key,” but he’s advising the project and playing Friday night’s concert as a benefit for the production. The Classical Kids organization hardly could have picked a more ardent or authoritative champion than Cole, who comes closest to evoking the sound and spirit of Gershwin’s pianism than anyone this side of Oscar Levant. Cole has donated his services for this concert, and a silent auction afterward will enable a successful bidder to engage Cole for a future performance.
Even apart from all this, however, the opportunity to hear Cole playing Gershwin on a world-class Fazioli grand piano in an acoustically warm, intimate setting such as PianoForte Studios is not an opportunity to be missed by anyone who values Gershwin’s inextinguishable music. Cole captures the crackle of Gershwin’s pianism, the briskness of his tempos and the wizardry of his technique.
Yet the exuberance of Cole’s work, as well as its improvisational feeling, remove this playing from the realm of imitation. Gershwin sounds alive and present when Cole is at the keys.
Still, skeptics might ask why kids in the 21st century ought to know about Gershwin, who was born in 1898 – the Stone Age to youngsters today.
“Because of Gershwin’s story,” says Cole. “He was a kid who grew up not liking music, until he heard his friend play the violin in a school program … and taught himself how to play music on a player piano.
“It took the power of one piece of music to change him around when he was 10 or 11 years old.”
That transformation changed the course of American music, Gershwin giving the world America’s greatest opera, “Porgy and Bess,” the brilliant and still ubiquitous “Rhapsody in Blue,” the symphonic tone poem “An American in Paris” (which inspired the Gene Kelly film musical of the same name) and dozens of classic songs, such as “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “The Man I Love” and “I Got Rhythm” (the latter a launching pad for endless jazz pianist’s variations).
What’s more, Gershwin’s music captures a distinctly American sound that audiences around the globe never seem to tire of, notwithstanding changing musical tastes and global politics.
“He’s one of a few – but really the first one of prominence – to combine combine influences of black, Jewish and other ethnic folk music into a new American music,” says Cole. “Into a voice that was very exciting for his time, especially in the ’20s.
“No matter where I go and play this music, no matter how we may differ on other things, we all agree that Gershwin’s music makes us feel good. Sometimes other countries are looking at us with disfavor, but when I play Gershwin, they know I’m giving them the best of what it means to be an American.”
Surely Gershwin’s death of a brain tumor in 1937, at age 38, stands as one of the greatest losses American music has suffered, a lifetime of scores left unwritten and unheard.
But the spirit of Gershwin’s music, his era and his distinctly American multiculturalism thrives around the world, and nowhere with more urgency than in Cole’s pianism.
‘An Evening With Kevin Cole’
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: PianoForte Studios, 1335 S. Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $100; 312-291-0291 or kevincole.eventbrite.com