Public television, which regularly spends millions of petrodollars from U.S. oil companies on programming imported from abroad, takes time for a perfunctory peep at American popular culture tonight with "Rhapsody and Song: A Tribute to George Gershwin," at 9 on Channel 26 (WETA is showing the program a mere six weeks after its scheduled PBS air date).
Whom do they get for a salute to America's greatest composer? The New Jersey Symphone Orchestra, which waddles and trundles through the "Girl Crazy" overture, and, with guest soloists, the "Concerto in F" and "Rhapsody in Blue." Pianist Bella Davidovich's reading of the "concerto" is really not bad -- occasionally too delicate but more often forceful and blunt, the way Gershwin wrote it. At the age of 56, the "Concerto" is still stunningly new.
The second hour is given over mainly to Sarah Vaughan, supposedly an untouchable goddess of song whose repeated "whoa-whoa-whoa's" and fluffed lyrics are no tribute to anybody. On up-tempo numbers she is more tolerable than in a disastrously lugubrious medley from "Porgy and Bess."
The best parts of the show have nothing to do with the Ho-Ho-Kus Philharmonic, or whatever it's called. Between acts, one gets a fleeting glimpse of Gershwin at the piano in an old film clip, blasting out "I Got Rhythm" with his characteristically ebullient bravado. He really was an athlete of the keyboard; it's the most masculine and assertive piano playing in the world.
And after an arduous interview conducted by tongue-tied host Robert Alda (who played Gershwin in Warner Bros.' "Rhapsody in Blue") with Frances Gershwin Godowsky, the composer's sister, and Gershwin expert Robert Kimball, there's a sweet little montage of Gershwin photographs, with Godowsky's own ingenuous recording of "Love Is Here to Stay" as accompaniment. The sunny, generous genius comes through; the legend survives even in this sloppily conceived two hours. Gershwin built a stairway to paradise, and it will stand forever.