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George Gershwin: VSO's Bramwell Tovey remembers a legend

Maestro Bramwell Tovey has led performances of Gershwin's music with the L.A. Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic

New seasons opens for VSO on birthday of composer famous for 'An American in Paris.'

George Gershwin (1898 - 1937) is famous for his compositions 'Rhapsody in Blue' and 'An American in Paris'. (Getty Images)

Bramwell Tovey, music director for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, can still remember when he first learned about American composer and pianist George Gershwin.

Gershwin, prolific in the 1920s and 30s, composed famous works like Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris before a brain tumour suddenly ended his life when he was 38.

It was that story, as much as his music, that impacted Tovey.

"When I was a youngster reading about George Gershwin I was shocked when I discovered that actually he died on July the 11th, which is my was 15 years before I was born, but it somehow or other resonated," he told Hot Air host Margaret Gallagher.

The VSO also happens to be opening their new season on a rather auspicious date — September 26 is Gershwin's birthday.

Tovey's love for Gershwin

While many know Tovey as the Grammy and Juno-award winning conductor of the VSO, he is also an accomplished jazz pianist with a special passion for the music of Gershwin, having recorded an album of Gershwin songs with singer Tracy Dahl.

Bramwell Tovey conducts the New York Philharmonic's presentation of "New Year's Eve: A Gershwin Celebration" at Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday night, December 31, 2014. (Getty Images)

Tovey has also conducted and played piano with some of the world's greatest orchestras in Gershwin programs, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in July 2014, and the New York Philharmonic with Dianne Reeves at the Lincoln Centre on New Year's Eve 2014.

"With Gershwin in particular there's an act of spontaneity in the music, you just fly through it," Tovey said.

Gershwin's influence

Tovey said that the Gershwin tunes he used to listen to as a teenager began having an influence on him as he grew older and entered situations as a musician where it was necessary to know how to improvise — such as when he played at church and would have to be ready to launch into any given key when the preacher suddenly started singing.

"I started acquiring that skill, little realizing it would actually come in very useful when I started to move to North America," he said.

Tovey said that Gershwin — whose compositions spanned a variety of genres, including popular music, classical and jazz — was "the first crossover artist".

Gershwin is widely known for his opera Porgy and Bess, which was performed in New York City in 1935 with a cast made up entirely of classically trained African-American singers.

"There's a quality and a uniqueness that George Gershwin was trying to express as a Jewish composer from the Bronx," said Tovey, who has conducted the score to the opera several times.

Classical and jazz converge

Though Porgy and Bess was initially a commercial failure, it is now considered to be a classic in twentieth century American opera.

"It's a unique score and of course it's plundered by jazz musicians all the time," Tovey said.

While Gershwin was one of the only composers able to successfully straddle the jazz and classical worlds in the early-1900s, Tovey said the distinction between both genres is becoming increasingly blurred.

"The more the boundaries get obfuscated, the better it is. The more there's this great sort of melange, this great blend of the two styles, the better it is for everyone — classical or jazz."

Tovey has found that the improvisational aspects of jazz have benefited him personally both as a performer and conductor.

"My conductor teacher said, 'When you conduct you have to have your head in the score, but when you improvise you have the score in your head'," he said.

"It's terribly therapeutic for a conductor to do this."