Wednesday’s opening concert of the Maine Festival of American Music, presented by the United Society of Shakers and the Portland String Quartet at the Shaker Meeting House in New Gloucester, was devoted to the music of George Gershwin and friends.

The quartet, with guest pianist Paul Posnak, made it a highly enjoyable evening, beginning with a string quartet version of “Swanee” (1919) which, with the help of Al Jolson, jump-started Gershwin’s career.

Gershwin’s forays into the realm of “classical” music, such as his “Lullaby for String Quartet” (1919), only recently discovered, were among the most interesting offerings on the program.

The Prelude II (1926) — part of an uncompleted effort to match Bach’s 24 — as interpreted by Posnak and violist Julia Adams, came as a revelation. It sounded like a seed, to be a decade in germination, for “Porgy and Bess.”

The most surprising work of the evening was a Russian string quartet’s transcription (ca. 1992) of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which the composers had heard on a Voice of America broadcast.

The original song, from “Porgy and Bess,” is one of my all-time favorites, but I think the string quartet version is better. The part writing both amplifies and brings into sharp focus the masterful construction of a work of pure genius.

Speaking of genius, one of Posnak’s musical projects is transcribing and re-interpreting the piano improvisations of Gershwin and other greats, such as Fats Waller.

Some of these can be found in ancient recordings and radio broadcasts, but were never written down. Posnak asserts that these are among the great masterpieces of improvisation, ranking with the work of Liszt and Chopin, and after hearing them, including Gershwin’s own incredible riffs on “I Got Rhythm,” I have to agree.

The pieces by Waller, a good friend of Gershwin’s, are almost as good, especially a parody of Russian music (1935), which seems in places to take aim at Rachmaninoff.

Posnak is also known as an interpreter of “the Cuban Gershwin,” Ernesto Lecuona (of “Malaguena” fame), and played three of his works that should be better known: “La Primera en al Frehte,” Impromptu and “Cordoba.”

The program ended with string quartet versions of Gershwin favorites, with piano obligato, including another version of “I Got Rhythm.”

The festival continues with a workshop from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. today, and a concert of Ernest Block, Mozart and Dvorak on Saturday at 7 p.m. For more information, call 926-4597 or e-mail [email protected]

 

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at:

[email protected]