Editor’s Note: “Catfish Row” that follows is the initial offering to be a section of this website, to be titled Commentary. The site is under revision. Please excuse.


J. A. Di Bello

     For a slice of time, it appeared the hands on the wall clock continued to move forward at an increasing speed. It was clean-up or take-it-to-the-dump week and the cardboard box I had just struggled with remained in the center of the den. It didn’t move, quiver, or shake; it just sat there; like dead. It endured without injury the trip from over-the-barn, and contrary to appearances, I knew with certainty its contents were full of youth, visions and magic.

Digression followed by suspension may be, after the dust settles, a segment of the final failure. The clean-up focus dispersed into the dust laden air; the cardboard box needed opening. A traveler, a time traveler would do. The magic contents needed to be examined, just one last time. What to keep, what to trash. No. No. Never trash. First, there escaped from that box an aroma, a scent one just might imagine originated from inside a grandfather’s clock. Bravely reaching in, I removed a slender, well-worn nearly square protective jacket, with a one-side glossy design. Secured in this dog-eared, dusty ol’ box were 15 similar devices, each designed to shield sets of shellac,12”, 78 RPM recordings.

Blindly, by reach, I removed one, a nearly unspoiled recording of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Recorded by Columbia Master Works on 2x12 inch shellac discs, released in 1942, with Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra, featuring Alec Templeton on the piano. And what comes next? How could it be…? A 76-year trip into history. Experience first-hand samples of an ever-expanding technology: electronic recording. With fastidious care, I removed a disc from its package, and placed it gently on a gracious turntable. There was that sound again, a sound from long ago, the stylus as it approaches the first grove. What were people doing or reading when they initially opened this gem. A 1942 newspaper? No. Didn’t have one. So, I settled for reading the set’s accompanying narrative, detailing the birth of two American Classics:  

The composition was first heard on February 24, 1924 at the Paul Whitman Concert, billed as An Experiment in Modern Music. Gershwin, then 25 years of age, had been asked by Whitman to prepare a jazz piece for the concert. Although working on another composition, tangled misinformation on the street indicated George Gershwin was writing a symphony for this highly anticipated event. Not the case, he now began fervently to compose a piece he wanted to reflect the vitality of the America he knew. As mentioned by his biographer and friend, Isaac Goldberg, he was inspired by the noise and clatter of a passenger train, as he rode. Although the score was completed and dated prior to the scheduled Whitman concert, Gershwin was so pressed for time he left the orchestration to Freddie Grofe who discarded a number of the established rules of orchestration, resulting in an effect termed “electrifying.” Further, the initial, famous ascending glissando clarinet glide is not a part of the original score, but was the invention of the concert’s clarinetist, Ross Gorman. By the time the young Gershwin took the stage, he had not fully completed piano score figurations and quite credibly he “improvised these little details.”         


At this point and to digress a tad: beginning a day assigned to relentless chores, I read a brief and interesting tribute to George Gershwin, by F. Paul Driscoll, editor, Opera News. Composer Gershwin, who in addition to the extraordinary circumstances that surround the initial composition and performance, of “Rhapsody…,” accepted in 1929 “a commission from the MET for a new opera.” However, circumstances intertangled and the achievement of a MET commissioned Gershwin opera was shelved. His journey to compose an opera remained, and in 1936, with the assistance of brother Ira, lyrists, libretto by DuBose Heyward, he presented to New York and Broadway a “Folk Opera”: Porgy and Bess. Discouraged, perhaps, by an uninspiring box office, Gershwin journeyed west, finding there the Hollywood film industry and unfortunately his final curtain, in 1937.  

However, in life as in theatre, there is an “Impossible Dream.” Gershwin’s quest to write an opera, to be performed main stage at the MET was his “star.” In 1985, on the golden anniversary of its premier, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opened on the big stage, at the MET, uncut, i.e., containing the “operatic” recitatives. A review of the opening performance by Donal Henahan, (NYT) stated boldly, “Still, there it is at last, Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan, in a production that probably would have made Gershwin happy.”

American classics, especially in the arts, are not bound by regions or the hands of an incessant wall clock. The enduring popularity of Gershwin’s two American classics is a prime example. Recently, selections from Porgy and Bess were featured in Queen of the Hudson Music Series, in Newburgh. The concert featured William Harvey on the violin and Katya Mahailova on the piano. The Greater Newburgh Symphony Orchestra recently featured an unforgettable delivery of “Rhapsody in Blue” at Aquinas Hall, Mount Saint Mary College, Newburgh.

Further, and as history tells, names and events are oft’ repeated. On September 23, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess will again be  honored by an opening night presentation at the Metropolitan Opera House, thirty-four years after its initial presentation. In the title roles September’s opening gala featured the noted duo of Eric Owens and Angel Blue. Carfish Row an' West 64th, the Met! 

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