Larry Adler elevated the harmonica Music: The virtuoso's interpretation of 'Rhapsody in Blue' made a big impression on its writer, George Gershwin.

October 01, 1998|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler was 15 years old and trying to get a job with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in Manhattan when he met George Gershwin.

"Whiteman said, 'Let me hear you play the "Rhapsody in Blue",' " Adler recalls of that day 60 years ago. "Remember, I was 15. I couldn't have handled the 'Rhapsody in Blue.' Technically it was beyond me."

But he's never lacked for chutzpah.

"I couldn't admit that to Whiteman. So I said: 'I don't like "Rhapsody in Blue".' And Whiteman turned to a young man I hadn't noticed before and said, 'How do you like that, George?'

"That's how I met Gershwin."

Adler went back to playing with the Gus Edwards Kiddie Revue down the street. Paul Whiteman had commissioned "Rhapsody in Blue" from Gershwin and first played it in 1924 at the Aeolian Hall in Manhattan with Gershwin as piano soloist.

This afternoon at 2 o'clock at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Adler -- now 84 and world-acclaimed on the harmonica -- plays the first of a series of concerts celebrating the 100th anniversary of Gershwin's birth, with Marvin Hamlisch conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

For the finale he'll play "Rhapsody in Blue," accompanied by a digital piano reproducing a piano roll Gershwin made of the "Rhapsody," a ghostly effect with the keys moving as if Gershwin were playing.

"To do it with Gershwin himself on the keyboard will, I think, be the highlight of the concert," says Adler modestly. ("I'm known for that. I've got modesty I haven't even used yet.")

Adler is a sensational and indefatigable talker.

"This is Gershwin's centenary and also my 70th year in show business," he says. Gershwin was born Sept. 26, 1898. Adler was born in Baltimore 84 years ago. He grew up on Washington Boulevard and Bryant Avenue, where his father was a Jewish plumber.

His career was launched in 1928 when he won an Evening Sun mouth-organ contest. He was 14.

"When I saw the headline in The Evening Sun that Lawrence Adler was 'Baltimore's best harmonica player' that gave me the idea of running away from home and going on stage."

He never looked back. He became, as the "New Grove Dictionary of Music" puts it, "the first harmonica player to achieve recognition and acceptance in classical musical circles and to have elevated the instrument to concert status."

He first played "Rhapsody in Blue" with Gershwin live at a New York party in 1934. Adler was 20 and about to depart on his first tour of England.

"At this party there was Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Harold Arlen and George Gershwin."

The host just announced that Adler and Gershwin were going to play "Rhapsody in Blue." "He didn't ask me if I knew it," Adler says.

Adler had never read the music, but he'd heard it often on record and radio. "And my most valuable musical asset is a great musical ear. If I hear it and I like it, I can damn well play it.

"George sat at the piano and I played the 'Rhapsody' all the way through from beginning to end. And when I finished George got up and put his hands on my shoulder and said 'the g - - - - - - thing sounds as if I wrote it for you.'

"And then he said something else: 'Kid, you got a great ear. Don't study or they'll ruin it.' "

Adler had studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory when he was about 9. But he was tossed out after a recital. He'd prepared a waltz by Grieg, but "when I came up on the platform the principal said, 'And what are we going to play, little man?' 'Little man' went to the piano and played 'Yes, We Have No Bananas.' I got expelled. I don't like being patronized. That was the end of my academic education."

Over the years, Adler has now played "Rhapsody in Blue" hundreds of times.

"I try to be as faithful as I can to what I think Gershwin wanted," he says.

The concert series will open with Marvin Hamlisch conducting the BSO in Gershwin's "Lullaby for Strings."

"He never heard it played in his lifetime," Adler says. "In 1963, Ira [Gershwin] gave me a birthday party and as a birthday present gave me the manuscript of this string quartet, 'Lullaby.' " Ira rTC Gershwin was a great lyricist who wrote the words to most of his brother's songs.

"I first played it at the Edinburgh Festival and later had Morton Gould score it for mouth organ and full symphonic strings and I recorded it for RCA. Then later orchestras took it up and that's what Marvin's going to play. If Ira hadn't given it to me, nobody would know it existed."

He first played the Gould string version of "Lullaby" in Belfast, Ulster, where the program noted the work had been given to him by "George Gershwin's beautiful widow, Ira."

"So I told the audience George never had a widow, because he never took the preliminary steps to acquire one."

Gershwin never married.

"The work was given to me not by his widow but by his brother, Ira, and only a shmuck like me would stand up in Belfast to plug a name spelled I-R-A."

He actually was much closer to Ira Gershwin than to George, who died in 1937 at only 38. He played more tennis than music with George Gershwin.

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