February 2010 Issue
Revisiting a Classic
Cleveland Orchestra principal keyboardist Joela Jones reminisces about recording ‘Porgy and Bess.’
Just as “Porgy and Bess” broke new ground when it debuted 75 years ago, so, too, did the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus’ interpretation of Gershwin’s masterpiece leave its audience dazzled after it was recorded in 1975: For not only was it the first time the complete opera was produced in stereo, but the three-disc compilation also had the distinction of being the first opera recording ever made by the Cleveland Orchestra.
To Joela Jones, a then-recent graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music who’d been appointed the orchestra’s principal keyboardist a scant three years before, playing such an instrumental part in the landmark recording is an experience she’ll treasure forever.
“Maybe its because I’m an American,” Jones muses, “ but I’m very proud that this magnificent piece was written by an American and performed so beautifully by an American orchestra and conducted by Lorin Maazel, an American conductor.”
Unlike his predecessors, who focused on European symphonies, says Jones, Maazel was a versatile artist who also embraced the operatic.
“He approached ‘Porgy and Bess’ the way he would a work by Wagner or Puccini,” she explains. “Maazel gave it tremendous vitality and value, elevating it to where it should be.
“I think,” Jones adds, “that comes across in our playing.”
Indeed, Maazel and producer Michael Woolcock left no detail to chance. And that included crafting the honky-tonk sound they decided was a key component of the overture (listen below), in which Jones tickles the ivories as Jasbo Brown.
The duo prowled the corridors and back rooms of Cleveland’s Masonic Hall –– where the recording would be made –– in search of a badly out-of-tune piano that would provide the noteworthy ambiance they were searching for. They found one, and had it moved to the stage, next to the 9-foot concert grand, which Jones would also play.
As was the practice before recording sessions commenced, a piano tuner was called in to check the concert grand.
“When Maazel came in several hours later,” Jones recalls, “he just about died.”
For the piano tuner had done his work well –– on both pianos: The honky-tonk sound was gone.
There was only one thing to do.
“They paid him,” Jones says, “to untune it.”
Porgy and Bess
Act 1, Scene 1
Track 1: Introduction, Jasbo Brown Blues (featuring Joela Jones)
Track 2: "Summertime" (performed by Barbara Hendricks as Clara)