"In both old and new works, Miss Lewis-Griffith showed herself to be a forceful pianist."
The New York Times
“… the Rhapsody or Second Rhapsody as it has become known … is another transcription made by Dorothy Lewis-Griffith. The piece is once again brought to life with suitably full and juicy pianistic sounds. Less familiar than the Rhapsody in Blue, this is a piece with cinematic associations and a good deal of visual hustle and bustle. This is communicated here with character and conviction. Dorothy Lewis-Griffith has made these pieces her own in these recordings. Both of these CDs are easy to recommend … Lewis-Griffith certainly has the chops to manage some fiendishly tricky passages in these transcriptions ... fans of the piano and the ways it can be stretched to incorporate an entire orchestra can have great fun with these versions. If you are lucky enough to be given one you will certainly want the other.”
Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
“Much of her playing, especially in the modern works, is quite effective, because she plays these with a warm, sympathetic tone...she brought to the recital a good deal of personal charm.”
Wriston Locklair, The Evening Post, Washington DC
"Throughout the program, we had the experience of a drama unfolding in our ears...the Gershwin Concerto in F (in transcription), which closed the concert at Guild Hall was a spectacular accomplishment."
David Swickard, East Hampton Star
"The artist from the new world shows great respect for China's age-old musical culture. She played for us The Willows are New (after Wang Wei's Yang Kuan) by Chou Wen Chung. The piece is full of the fragrance of classical Chinese music...the performer expressed the farewell poem well."
Yunnan Ribao, People's Republic of China
“A sensitive and attentive musician.”
Edward Rothstein, The New York Times
"...not only a solid keyboard technician, but a thoroughly musical pianist as well"
John Schneider, The Atlanta Journal
A Conversation with Pianist Dorothy Lewis-Griffith
BY LYNN RENÉ BAYLEY (published in Fanfare.com)
Tuesday, 14 June 2011
It has always puzzled me how and why the music of Gershwin continues to exert so strong a pull on pianists and audiences while works of equal or greater quality in the jazz-classical vein are considered curios. Perhaps that should be the first question one should put to Dorothy Lewis-Griffith, who specializes in 20th-century composers but particularly in the musical Bard of Brooklyn. She has issued but two CDs in the course of her long and busy career, and both are all-Gershwin discs (reviewed following the interview).
Although I wonder at the continued interest in Gershwin, there is no question as to why he achieved a star position in the first place. In an era when public relations was still in its infancy, he and his music were promoted by one of the most gifted proselytizers of any age, bandleader Paul Whiteman. I could go into great detail, and one day no doubt will, as to Whiteman’s true value and importance to American music, but alas, Fanfare is not the right venue for this. Suffice it to say that the former violist of the Denver Symphony created an organization and public image, unmatched by any other musician of his day, and that, whatever one may think of his finished products as jazz or jazz-classical hybrids, he was a tireless promoter of not only himself but musicians whose work he truly admired.
Whiteman asked Gershwin, who had had some success already as a ragtime and Broadway composer (his rag Rialto Ripples was a big hit in the post-World War I era, later adapted by the great TV comedian Ernie Kovacs as Oriental Blues , and in 1922 his Broadway tune “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” was parlayed into a major hit by Whiteman), to write something for his upcoming concert at Aeolian Hall in February 1924. Gershwin probably thought he meant a hit tune, because he was playing pool without a note in his head when a crony read from the newspaper that Whiteman was expecting a concerto. Gershwin came up with Rhapsody in Blue in three weeks, at least the piano reduction of it. Since he had little experience in orchestration, that portion of the work was turned over to Whiteman’s staff arranger, Ferde Grofé. Hybrid or not, the work made a huge impression at the concert, touted even by critics with little or no sympathy for jazz rhythms. (Ironically, one critic liked the jazzy portions of the piece but complained of the quite “ordinary” romantic theme that emerged in the second half.) Later in the same year, John Alden Carpenter premiered his jazz-influenced ballet Skyscrapers at the Metropolitan Opera, in many ways a superior work, but all Carpenter had was the support of his blue-blood circle and a ton of money (he had financed the performance of the ballet out of his own pocket). Throughout the 1920s and early 30s more jazz-influenced works appeared from European composers, but for most Americans these works did not exist. It was Gershwin, Gershwin, Gershwin: the Concerto in F, the Three Preludes, An American in Paris, the Cuban Overture, the Second Rhapsody, and late in his short life, while ensconced in Hollywood writing film scores, the opera Porgy and Bess. Lewis-Griffith has absorbed them all, processed them through decades of performance experience, and—discographically speaking—has staked her future reputation on her interpretations of them.
Without giving too much away, what strikes me forcibly in Lewis-Griffith’s performances is her imaginative and highly personal sense of phrasing. Her performances, all of them, show little if any dependence on the Gershwin tradition that runs from the composer himself through Earl Wild, the last of the “original” Gershwin followers to pass on. We shall certainly ask her about that as well.
Born Dorothy Lewis, the pianist made her orchestral debut at age 14 with the North Carolina Symphony. She earned her undergraduate and her master’s degrees at Juilliard. The recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Award, she studied at the Paris Conservatory and the École Normale de Musique. While in Europe, she won a prize in the Geneva International Music Competition. Later, she obtained a doctor of musical arts degree from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. Lewis-Griffith has served on the faculties of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, the Peabody Conservatory, Valdosta State College, and Catawba College in North Carolina. Besides the music of George Gershwin, she has also specialized in the music of American composer Robert Starer, the subject of her doctoral dissertation.
Q: Let us start at the top. Why do you specialize in Gershwin?
A: I get a great deal of pleasure from Gershwin’s music, and I have found that audiences everywhere enjoy it as well. When I was in Brazil, I had a request to play the Rhapsody in Blue for a radio program in Rio. In the People’s Republic of China, where I was invited to perform the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the city orchestra of Kunming, Yunnan, I was asked to play the Rhapsody in Blue on the same program. Numerous times as a student in Paris, when people learned I was from the U.S., they asked me to play Rhapsody in Blue as a solo. I have played it in many a summer concert with orchestras in the U.S. I think most American pianists learn that work.
I lost my son, and it was then that I decided to make a recording of music with which I could identify. For instance, when Gershwin wrote a lament, I could lament with it, and when he changed the mood to his speakeasy rhythms, it would make me want to smile. I had no thought of how it would affect my professional career at that time. It was therapy.
However, after the first album was published, I was invited to record a second, which the publishers said had to include An American in Paris . The two CDs were supposed to have been repackaged together, but, as you can see, that didn’t happen.
Q: One thing that struck me in your interpretations is that they have a looser, more jazz-based rhythmic feeling than Gershwin’s own performances, which were stylistically closer to ragtime. How did you arrive at this style?
A: The larger works are much more than ragtime, and I think he would have liked what I have done. However, I do play the Novelette in Fourths pretty much as he played it. I achieved my style by trying to reproduce what I saw in the musical scores.
Q: You’ve said that one of the recordings that inspired you was Gershwin’s own recording of Rhapsody in Blue with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. I’m curious to know if this was the smoother, more “classical” 1927 recording or the jazzier, more syncopated 1924 recording?
A: I had never heard the 1924 recording until recently when I found it on YouTube.
Q: I have long felt that, if Rhapsody in Blue were to truly be a jazz-classical hybrid, the piano solo passages could, or perhaps even should, be improvised on rather than played come scritto. Do you have any thoughts on this, and have you ever considered trying this?
A: Do you mean Jazzbo Brown’s fill-ins and glissandos? I don’t think I would do that to the Rhapsody in Blue . It works the way it is.
Q: I was very happy to see that in your recording you included a transcription of the Second Rhapsody, subtitled Rhapsody in Rivets . I’ve long felt that, compositionally, it is actually superior to the more popular Rhapsody in Blue . What are your feelings on it?
A: The Second Rhapsody is so much fun! I love to play it. I thought while I was working on it that it was just as beautiful as the first rhapsody. And you are right: Gershwin’s compositional technique grew significantly in eight years. In the second, his use of thematic material is much more sophisticated. But then, how can one account for the continuing greater popularity of Rhapsody in Blue ? I don’t know the answer.
Q: To what extent do you think Gershwin has influenced, if at all, American composers of later decades working within the jazz-classical idiom?
A: American composers of later decades working within the jazz-classical idiom did so because they saw how much people enjoyed what Gershwin had done. They saw his success. However, I think Duke Ellington’s influence came from the same African-American music that influenced Gershwin.
Q: While I appreciated the hard work it took to make piano reductions of these scores, I was wondering if you had any plans to record the Gershwin works for piano and orchestra in the future, possibly using the original orchestration, which was considerably leaner than what one hears nowadays from symphony orchestras?
A: Every time I hear the piano-and-orchestra version of Concerto in F in live concert, the piano is drowned out by the orchestra in so many places that it might be a very good idea to thin down the orchestral sound. This work was written only one year after Rhapsody in Blue and was the first concerto that Gershwin himself orchestrated. Because the orchestra overpowers the piano, I think the concerto actually works better on just one—or two—pianos. But, if I were to record the Rhapsody in Blue , I would use all the big, lush sound I could get.
Q: I noticed a video upload on YouTube of your performance of the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu, op. 66, which unfortunately I couldn’t watch because I have a dial-up connection. I was wondering if you find a kinship between the fluid, bel canto style of Chopin and the style of Gershwin, which may or may not be played in a rhythmically fluid manner?
A: In Porgy and Bess , Gershwin wrote many fluid, bel canto arias, such as “Summertime” and “I Loves You, Porgy.” And they are rhythmically fluid in that they follow the language. There are often similarities between the style of Gershwin and that of Chopin. Chopin’s melodic lines seem to follow a language pattern also.
Q: Do other jazz-classical hybrids from Anthiel and Ravel to Bill Evans and Mingus hold any interest for you? I’m thinking particularly of Ellington’s Night Creature , which I consider one of his finest works for piano, jazz musicians, and symphony orchestra.
A: Absolutely Ravel does. He’s one of my favorite composers. We all know the influence that Gershwin had on Ravel’s two piano concertos. As for Duke Ellington, I love his music, and I like to play it.
Q: Do you have any additional comments or last words?
A: You have mentioned Rhapsody in Blue several times. Though it is one of my favorites (currently, I’m especially enjoying An American in Paris ), I have transcribed and recorded all of Gershwin’s major works except Cuban Overture. Cuban Overture ’s textures are too thick to make an effective transcription for the piano. It can be done by omitting essential textures, but the final product won’t be satisfying. Gershwin was such a genius!