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Rhapsody in Blue – Concert Program
September 25, 2011 at 2:00 P.M.
Jennifer Ciobanu, Soprano*
RHAPSODY IN BLUE – Program Notes
Cuban Overture (1932)
Cuban Overture is an overture in the typical A-B-A form with rhythms unmistakably those of Cuban dance, with a forte introduction that segues to the development of two themes that are connected by a “three-part contrapuntal episode.” A solo clarinet introduces the slower middle section, which is accompanied by claves and bongo. The lush writing reminds one of Gershwin’s earlier work, An American in Paris, but the harmonic complexities bear evidence of the more advanced compositional techniques that Gershwin had recently begun studying with teacher Joseph Schillinger. This section builds to a march-like climax before breaking once again into dance. “The finale,” Gershwin wrote, “is a development of the preceding material in a stretto-like manner ...[concluding with] a coda featuring the Cuban instruments of percussion.” The brass section gets a chance to shine in brilliant rhythmic figures as the work comes to an exuberant finish.
Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
In November 1923, the band leader Paul Whiteman asked George Gershwin to compose a concerto-like piece for an all-jazz concert titled An Experiment in Modern Music he would give in Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924. Gershwin sketched a few possible themes, but was engrossed in his Broadway commitments. However, after his brother read an article entitled “What is American Music?” about the Whiteman concert in the January 4th edition of the New York Tribune which claimed that he was at work on a jazz-concerto, Gershwin quickly put his focus into this new work. He was inspired by the rhythm and rattle of the Boston train, later telling his first biographer that while on the train, “I suddenly hear[d], and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end…I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” The piece was completed in less than a few weeks and was given to Ferde Grofé to orchestrate because of the time constraints. From the opening clarinet glissando, to Gershwin soloing on the piano, to the blues and jazzy riffs, the premiere of the piece was a success. Rhapsody in Blue has become a musical portrait of New York City. It has been used in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, the Disney film Fantasia 2000, and even as the background music of the commercials of United Airlines. Donald Hunsberger has scored this wind accompaniment version from the 1924 and 1926 Ferde Grofé orchestrations.
An American in Paris (1928)
An American in Paris is described by Gershwin as the impressions of an American visitor in Paris “as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” Gershwin’s first concert piece written without a commission, An American in Paris premiered in Carnegie Hall on December 13, 1928. In addition to the standard instruments of the symphony orchestra, the score features period automobile horns—in fact, Gershwin brought back some Parisian taxi-cab horns for the first New York performances. Today many associate the title An American in Paris with the Gene Kelly movie that swept the Academy Awards for 1951 rather than with a purely orchestral work by one of America’s most treasured composers.
Catfish Row: Symphonic Suite from "Porgy and Bess" (1932)
Catfish Row is a symphonic suite of music from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, largely based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward. Gershwin had been given the novel by friends the preceding year and grew increasingly interested in its story of a crippled black beggar in Charleston, South Carolina, and his life in the poor, rundown section of the city. Gershwin began composing Porgy and Bess in 1932, in collaboration with Heyward and with his brother Ira Gershwin, who actually cast the text into a form George could set to music. A Boston preview of the completed work was enthusiastically received, with Serge Koussevitsky calling it “a great advance in American opera.” However, a New York run did not fare well, and a decision was made to create a company tour to help control production costs.
As a means of introducing the opera to local audiences in Philadelphia—prior to the actual production opening there—Gershwin assembled an orchestral suite from his opera score. In preparing the suite, he extracted five sections and bridged them skillfully into a compendium of the opera’s music, including many instrumental passages that had been jettisoned in Boston. The result is a well-balanced piece—more than just a collage of the opera’s most popular songs—as he placed the music almost identically in the order that it appears in the opera. Thus, musical interest and development does not depend on any knowledge of the plot. The suite was performed numerous times, with Gershwin conducting, prior to his death. It then lay unnoticed until Ira reintroduced it in the 1950s with the title Catfish Row, a move to separate and identify it from the Symphonic Suite, published in 1941 by Robert Russell Bennett. In this edition for wind ensemble, by Donald Hunsberger, the original voice assignments have been restored.