performed by Wayne Marshall and the Aalborg Symphony, or below by Earl Wild and the Boston Pops under Arthur Fielder
Jazz. I don’t like it.
But I’m also willing to admit when I’m wrong. Earlier this year I was present at one of the most stunningly magical concerts I’ve ever had the joy of attending, with zero expectation that it would be so. One Wayne Marshall was in town, and would be leading our very own Taipei Symphony in a concert program of all Gershwin works, with the real centerpiece being the concerto in F. Go read the review of that night to try to get some idea of how magical it was, because Marshall struck a balance between serious concert music and laid-back, soulful jazz that was no less than spellbinding. One of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been in attendance for, and the very reason today’s work is being featured as Gershwin’s first appearance. His performance live in Taipei was exquisite, as is the recording with the Aalborg symphony, from both orchestra and soloist, in great sound. Go get it.
It’s pretty undeniable that jazz is a serious part of American history, and it undeniably made its way into classical settings from some unlikely sources. Gershwin and Copland and Bernstein may come to mind as the obvious examples, but even less expected ones like Ravel, Shostakovich, Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Weill, Krenek, and other non-American composers took up that influence and used it to varying degrees.
We welcome George Gershwin to the blog today, not with his famous and intoxicatingly bluesy Rhapsody in Blue, but with something maybe not quite as famous. It’s a piano concerto, which is about as standardly classical a genre as you can get. Beethoven wrote them, Mozart wrote more of them, and down to the late 19th and early 20th century, people were still writing them. As a reference point, another work inspired by jazz, which came a year after this concerto, was Rachmaninoff’s fourth piano concerto. Perhaps it’s not accurate to say ‘inspired by jazz’, but rather that it makes use of elements of jazz, but the discussion of that piece is for another time. Rachmaninoff himself had been in attendance at the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, but maybe not for this concerto.
The piano concerto is a more traditional counterpart to the more overtly, unabashedly bluesy Rhapsody, and was a commission from Walter Damrosch, who was also in attendance at the Rhapsody premiere. Damrosch was apparently moved by the piece, and wanted something like it for himself and the New York Symphony Orchestra, which later merged with another ensemble to become the New York Philharmonic. So there was obviously the challenge of creating something that Damrosch would be pleased with that wasn’t a repeat of Rhapsody, but apparently Damrosch also dictated that it be a more traditional work.
This was great for Gershwin, but also not so great. At the time, he had no formal training (which he would later get from, among others, Arnold Schoenberg!) Clearly a man not only of musical talent but of practical business matters, despite having three Broadway musicals to finish that same year, he bought himself some books and started learning what he needed to learn to fulfill the commission, which he didn’t begin writing until more than a year after the Rhapsody premiere. A version of the work was finished and the composer hired a 55-member orchestra out of his own pocket to hear the work with Damrosch in attendance, and some changes were made.
The work is in three movements, of about a half hour, and while it’s obviously jazzy and bluesy from beginning to end, is a wonderful construction of standard concerto structure, with themes introduced in the first movement that get reused by the orchestra, a full-bodied middle movement, and action-packed rondo as a finale. In the composer’s words (apparently from St. Louis Symphony program notes that are no longer online), it’s like this:
The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettle drums…. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano. The second movement has a poetic, nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated. The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout.
I described it to a friend the other day as a fancy dinner. The opening movement is all the greetings and hellos, the excitement of arriving and seeing old friends, grabbing a drink and having some canapés. It’s got energy, excitement, plenty of buzz to get things rolling. But that’s an oversimplification.
Interestingly, for what I guess people expect to be a jazz-inspired concerto, its first gesture is kettle drum, big, roaring booms on the timpani. It’s only after that that the Charleston kicks in. There’s the brass and clarinet that you’d expect, but you’ll notice, as mentioned above, that this is more than just a jazz composer trying his hand in a professional classical setting; it’s a damn good concerto. It sticks to traditional concerto form, has all the elements that, say, a Beethoven concerto would have, but with some early 20th century American pizzazz to it, so just enjoy.
There’s an orchestral introduction before the piano enters. That timpani figure repeats a few times as the orchestra awakens, and what wonderful writing it is; a drum roll precedes the introduction of the piano, who enters with a small, cool as hell quiet splash. After a bit of the piano’s introductory play, the orchestra slides back in to accompany, and the first movement is solidly underway. It’s just rich and smooth and a bit decadent, really nothing out of place at all.
The second movement makes up nearly half the length of the concerto, the slow movement. What would a jazzy piece be without cool blue clarinets and a trumpet solo? It’s a cool sigh of relaxation, and for a while the piano takes a back seat. That introductory trumpet solo appears multiple times, but again, this movement is so much more than that. It has some real highs. The opening sounds like sitting out on the patio of a lounge or parlor after a fancy dinner, a wedding, still in your suit, sweating in the sticky summer heat, but enjoying a scotch or, characteristically for the time, a smoke, and all is right with the world.
Don’t let the second movement fool you; there’s more to it than it seems. Even the English horn gets a solo before the piano enters, and when it does, things pick up just a bit. We move from the languid, smoky trumpet solo to a little spring-in-the-step dance with strings played pizzicato (violins across the lap, if I remember correctly from when Marshall came to visit), and things get more exciting. Gershwin’s rhythms, melodies, and especially the harmonies, are just delicious throughout this work, it’s much more than just a slow movement, building to quite some climaxes before cooling off here and there to almost nothing, the interaction between soloist and orchestra also wonderfully written.
In delicious, vivid contrast to the second movement is the blazing-fast, knock-your-socks-off finale, at only six or seven minutes. It’s finale-sounding, and at first sounds less jazzy than anything so far, with a crazed driving rhythm, but we do hear that the rhythms are indeed still heavily blues-focused. It starts off sounding intense and a little crazed, but it warms up to a wink from the pianist and a smile for some good fun to round out the work, a breathtaking way to round out this work, but it also has some cooler, broader moments. What you’ll want to listen for aside from the jazzy, sometimes even ragtime elements of this finale, is how the piece, not because it needs or wants to, returns back, in a coda of sorts, to the content of the opening movement, a sort of surprise ending to unite the entire piece overall. It could easily have ended in the excitement and drive earlier, but things slow down to quote directly the very beginning of the work, creating an opulent, united, masterful finale to an exciting, sumptuously rich enormous success of a piano concerto.
I just can’t say enough about this work. Some people might be inclined to dismiss it because of its very specific idiom, conjuring images of jazz and 1920s ballrooms and dance halls and a very specific image, and that’s true. However, in every respect, from the piano writing and the orchestral accompaniment, to the melodies (obviously) and the luscious, colorful rich harmonies, the structure of the work, its overall contours and layout, it is a magnificent piano concerto of the highest order. So sure, I can understand those of you quick to dismiss it by saying it’s a not-so-serious jazz thing, a novelty item of some concert halls, but it’s a masterpiece of music, blending the centuries-long history of classical music with something significant and meaningful in that time period, that is notable, timeless, and enjoyable. Bravo.
Stay tuned for some more music from English-speaking composers on both sides of The Pond, and we’ll see you soon.