Kogan to speak on Gershwin today at Wheeler | AspenTimes.com

Kogan to speak on Gershwin today at Wheeler

Eben Harrell
Dr. Richard Kogan will perform "Music and the Mind: George Gershwin" tonight at the Wheeler Opera House.

For all the progress neuroscientists and psychiatrists have made revealing how human behavior is linked always to electricity and hormones in the human brain, there are still certain arenas in which this reductionism leaves the general public unconvinced.J.S. Bach believed music to be a communion with a spiritual realm, and this belief has never really left us. In our conception of it, classical music is a deep, numinous code, grabbed, like inspiration, from the ethereal. If scientists want to tell us that music comes from nothing more than a pattern of synapses firing in the brain, well, that’s because they are scientists and don’t know the first thing about music.This is where Dr. Richard Kogan comes in. Kogan is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist and Julliard-trained pianist. Accomplished in both fields, Kogan has launched a series of lecture/performances fusing psychiatry and music through hypothetical diagnoses of famous composers.

Last year, Kogan gave a performance in Aspen titled “Music, Moodswings and Madness,” in which he argued that Robert Schumann’s music was greatly influenced by what Kogan diagnosed as bipolar disorder in the composer.Tonight, Kogan returns to Aspen to discuss the work of the great American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937). Like in his Schumann performance, Kogan will intersperse piano transcriptions of Gershwin’s work with stories and discussions about the composer’s life. Also like the Schumann performance, proceeds from tonight’s event will benefit the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation.Kogan says Gershwin’s early work, particularly his famous “Rhapsody in Blue” was influenced by an extraordinary hyperactivity in the composer, what would likely be diagnosed now as attention deficit disorder. He was, in short, a troublesome youth.”What’s amazing is that once Gershwin dedicated his life to music, the delinquent behavior of his youth vanished,” Kogan says. “But he always remained hyperactive. And his music has this sort of hyperactive feel. Even his tender songs that are now popularly performed in a lilting legato he performed in hyper-active speed.”

Gershwin’s hyperactivity meant that sounds of all sorts – ranging from budding Harlem jazz to the chaotic sounds of the post-industrial city – were influential in his work.”He was inspired to write “Rhapsody in Blue” on a train ride when he heard the clackety-clack of the train and the whoosh of steam engine,” Kogan says. “When he went to Paris he noted Parisian taxi horns were different than New York taxis, and incorporated the new sound into the percussion session of ‘American in Paris.’ Examples such as these beg us to ask what it was about his psyche that led to his success as a composer.”Kogan’s performance will also focus on Gershwin’s late opera – Porgy and Bess. In his mid-30s, Gershwin began experiencing a deep depression that Kogan believes was a symptom of the massive brain tumor that would eventually kill him at 38. The psychiatric changes that accompanied Gershwin’s malignancy are apparent in the opera.”He wrote Porgy and Bess while he was being treated for his depression and the music has a poignancy and depth that none of this earlier work had. It seems sad and ironic now that he reached a depth of profundity that he never achieved early in his life,” Kogan says.

Although modern psychiatry was in its infancy during Gershwin’s life, Kogan says an accurate diagnosis has been helped by contemporaries of Gershwin who are still living. Kogan’s performance is based on extensive biographical reading and primary-source interviews.”Part of what was fun about looking at Gershwin is that many of the principle players from his life are still alive,” Kogan says. “An oboist who played with the composer told me that Gershwin was having phantom smells long before he died, an early indication of his brain tumor. It’s been fascinating to learn about and share with other people the psychiatric history of this great composer’s life.”Kogan will perform “Music and the Mind: George Gershwin” tonight at the Wheeler Opera House. General admission tickets cost $35 and are available at 920-5770. Special $75 patron seats are available by calling 544-7371. An after-concert dinner with Kogan costs $250 and is also available by calling 544-7371. All proceeds go to the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com

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