Nearly 75 years after his death at the age of 39, the composer's hold on the public has never loosened. He was the epitome of Jazz Age creativity and sophistication, with an unfailing gift for melody and rhythmic vitality.
"It's a challenge to choose a program," said BSO principal pops conductor Jack Everly, "because the repertoire, for all the brief time Gershwin had on this Earth, is of such high quality. The question comes down to balancing an evening so it is not all about song, or all about the orchestral works, but gives you an entertaining taste of both."
Almost everywhere on the planet, people know and respond enthusiastically to such instrumental works as "Rhapsody in Blue," which will be on the BSO program, featuring soloist Stewart Goodyear.
"Stewart's interpretation of it is, for my musical taste, the finest since Oscar Levant's — and that's saying a lot," Everly said. (Levant reigned supreme among pianists as a Gershwin interpreter in the 1930s and '40s.)
Then there is the enormous George and Ira Gershwin song trove that includes such favorites as "Someone to Watch Over Me," "I Got Rhythm," and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Those songs will be performed by Judy McLane, who is taking a break from her gig starring in "Mamma Mia" on Broadway to participate in these concerts.
"She has one of those beautiful voices that seems so effortless," Everly said, "but, of course, there is effort and thought behind it."
As Everly is the first to point out, when you talk about George, you have to talk about his brother Ira, too. And that's the angle for this BSO program, called "The Brothers Gershwin."
Ira was the lyricist for George for more than 700 songs between 1918 and 1937. Out of that stockpile came an exceptionally long list of standards that became part of the Great American Songbook.
"Almost from the start," wrote Deena Rosenberg in her book about the brothers, "Fascinating Rhythm," "George heard music in Ira's lyrics, Ira heard lyrics in George's music, and the songs sound as if music and lyrics emerged from a single source."
In addition to examples of that collaborative chemistry, the BSO program will give Ira Gershwin his due by including songs that he produced with other composers.
"You could do programs of George and Ira songs every night, month after month, there is so much," Everly said. "But Ira did move on after George's death. Everyone wanted to work with him. His lyrics are marvelous."
The "Ira Steps Out" portion of the program, also with McLane as vocalist, includes such classy examples as "Long Ago and Far Away," with music by Jerome Kern, and "The Man That Got Away," with music by Harold Arlen.
On its own, the orchestra will get to play several instrumental versions of George and Ira songs, via the overture to "Girl Crazy" and a suite from "Porgy and Bess."
Those pieces are de rigueur for such a program, but another orchestral item is quite rare — the overture to the 1945 film "Rhapsody in Blue," a bio of George Gershwin starring Robert Alda.
"It was done by Ray Heindorf, music director at Warner Brothers," Every said. "The overture was played before the visual part of the film. Audiences in large cities got to hear it, but it was deleted when the film was sent out to the smaller theaters."
That music went unheard until it appeared on a Rhino Records release in 1997. Everly was given a copy of the original score, handwritten by Warner Brothers copyists, from pianist/vocalist Michael Feinstein.
"It is some of the most sophisticated, beautiful orchestral arranging Ray ever did," Everly said, "with one great song after another coming at you."
If you go
The BSO performs "The Brothers Gershwin" at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $34 to $73. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org.