If American music had to be defined in only two words, these would do nicely: George Gershwin.
As the composer of Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and a trove of inimitable popular songs from his scores to musical plays and films -- with lyrics by his brother Ira -- Gershwin defined the Jazz Age. But he also transcended his time. That timelessness will be celebrated in a theatrical program of words, music and visuals that the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra is presenting at its home base and three other venues this weekend as part of its first regional tour.
"By George! By Ira! By Gershwin!" is the brainchild of soprano Carolyn Black-Sotir, who will be featured in the concerts, along with other Maryland-based artists, including pianist Eric Zuber and baritone Thomas Beard. ASO music director Jose-Luis Novo conducts. Local high school marching bands will also get in on the act -- for "Strike Up the Band," of course.
"There are not many people who don't like Gershwin," Black-Sotir says, "and the story of his life is such an incredible one. I wrote the program 10 years ago to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. It tells his story with a dramatic narrative, but it's not pedantic. The music illustrates what was happening with Gershwin and with music in America at that time. And there are images and audio clips to support the narrative."
Gershwin's accomplishments were extraordinary, but his genius has not always been recognized in classical circles.
"I think he is a composer who in some ways is overlooked or underestimated," Novo says. "Actually, his craft is very sophisticated, from a symphonic point of view. His music is so engaging. Gershwin has a natural lyricism that many composers lack, or search for all their lives. And his music is always fun to play."
Black-Sotir's program, which has been performed previously in the area by the Columbia Orchestra and also in various places in a version with two-piano accompaniment, takes note of how Gershwin left his distinctive mark in several ways before he died in 1937 at age 38. "It offers a chance to look at his music in an integrated way, connected to his life and that of his brother," Novo says.
In addition to the well-known Rhapsody and excerpts from his groundbreaking opera Porgy and Bess, Gershwin's solo piano music and the charming Lullaby for string quartet will be touched upon, along with lesser-known numbers he and Ira wrote, such as "The Babbitt and the Bromide" from the 1927 musical Funny Face.
"We also do some interesting things with well-known songs," Black-Sotir says. "We combine one of his piano preludes with 'Summertime' simultaneously, for example, and that's very interesting. Some songs are done in a contemporary style to show how his music can be interpreted in so many different ways. That's one of the reasons it has lasted, and become part of the American songbook."
A treasured item from that songbook, "Our Love is Here to Stay," is placed in poignant context during the show.
"The music was written just before George died, and Ira added the lyrics after his brother's death," Black-Sotir says. "It helped Ira out of his depression. The lyrics are very touching, and the story about how they came to be written is very touching. I've had people tell me they will never listen to that song the same way again."
The program is at 8 tonight at Winters Mill High School, 560 Gorsuch Road, Westminster. $12-$30. 877-276-8497. Also at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. Limited availability. Call 410-263-0907 or go to annapolissymphony.org. Continues at 8 p.m. Saturday at Chesapeake Performing Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park. $10-$20. Call 410-636-6597 or go to chesapeakearts.org/tickets.html. The final performance is at 3 p.m. Sunday at Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. $19.48. Call 410-356-5200, ext. 348.