Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Austrian conductor who turned 80 last week, is considered the father of the early-music movement, a pioneer in performing Bach and Mozart in period style. So no one expected his latest recording: George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a Broadway “folk opera” full of jazz, blues, and popular songs like Summertime. Unlike other “crossover” recordings, like Kiri Te Kanawa singing West Side Story, this isn’t the record company’s idea: New Zealand bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu, who sings the role of Porgy, told Maclean’s that Harnoncourt “had been trying to put this project together for the last 40 years.” Never mind Bach and Beethoven; what a famous European musician wants to conduct is Bess, You Is My Woman Now.
Porgy has attracted the attention of other symphonic conductors, but mostly anglophones like the Berlin Philharmonic’s current leader Simon Rattle. Harnoncourt, the son of a Viennese aristocrat, has never performed American music before; he rarely even visits America, because of what he described to the Boston Globe as “extreme jet lag.” He assembled the mostly black cast of Porgy, including Lemalu and soprano Isabelle Kabatu (who filled in as Bess when Canadian star Measha Brueggergosman became ill) in his hometown of Graz, Austria. Classical fans couldn’t resist making fun of a German-speaking Bach specialist taking on the story of a fictional South Carolina town: the blog Opera Chic dubbed the concert “Driving Herr Niki.” Even Harnoncourt had his doubts; he told Le Figaro that Rattle warned him against conducting the piece (“he told me that I don’t have the right passport”), and Lemalu recalls that Harnoncourt was upfront about his lack of experience with this music, willing “to listen to others in the cast who had done the piece many times.”
That willingness may have paid off, because critics have been surprisingly enthusiastic. The London Independent called the recording “an exuberant experience,” and the Guardian’s Andrew Clements wrote that Harnoncourt “sets the performance ablaze.” As what Kabatu calls “one of the rare living legends among conductors,” Harnoncourt is respected by critics, but some of his other experiments, like a recording of Verdi’s Aida, got a more negative reception. In Porgy, on the other hand, Harnoncourt seems to know what he’s doing. He can be stiff in some of the jazzier sections, but he gets great playing from the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in the more operatic moments, and provides sympathetic accompaniment for hit songs like It Ain’t Necessarily So. Lemalu says that Harnoncourt’s “knowledge of the piece, the context of its creation, the composer and his travels and influences was extraordinary,” and Kabatu says she learned that great conductors “always have complete confidence in their interpretations,” no matter what the piece is.
Then again, for Harnoncourt—who says that he has loved the score since he was a boy—Gershwin isn’t a novelty, but a part of his musical heritage. In America, critics didn’t always take Gershwin seriously as a composer, but Europeans, like Maurice Ravel, were huge fans. It’s appropriate that Harnoncourt’s chorus is called the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, since Schoenberg, creator of atonal modern music, was Gershwin’s friend and tennis partner. Lemalu says that Gershwin’s music “encapsulates what many non-Americans would consider to be quintessential American music,” but his fusion of classical, jazz and pop has also been a source of inspiration for European musicians. He belongs to them almost as much as he does to Americans.
That doesn’t mean the recording, available on CD and as a download, will replace the classic versions of the piece, like the 1977 recording by the Houston Grand Opera. Some of these singers are new to the piece—this was “my debut Porgy,” Lemalu says—and they don’t always have the energy, or the clear diction, that they need. Still, Harnoncourt’s conducting, with its slow speeds and emphasis on the classical influences in Gershwin’s music (like his tributes to Alban Berg, the Viennese composer of Wozzeck), may shed new light on what the conductor calls the music’s “universal relevance.” As part of the conductor’s birthday celebrations, RCA has also issued a new recording of Harnoncourt on home turf, conducting Bach cantatas. It’s almost a way of saying that Bach and Gershwin are part of the same great musical tradition. Even if Bach never wrote a number called Oh, Doctor Jesus.