Carnegie Hall Celebrates 100 Years of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Carnegie Hall Celebrates 100 Years of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

The celebration will include a concert with the New York Pops and Montego Glover.

Montego Glover with the New York Pops

From the moment of its premiere a century ago, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue has been recognized as an icon of the Jazz Age, a sassy, tuneful, irresistibly down-to-earth portrait of a country that had found its voice and was poised to take its place on the world stage. “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America,” said the 25-year-old composer, “of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Although it was written for the concert hall, Gershwin’s masterpiece spoke in the unrefined accents of Brooklyn and Harlem. “I never tried to prettify it as most composers do.”

A made-in-heaven marriage of jazz and classical idioms, Rhapsody in Blue has begotten countless arrangements, orchestrations, and adaptations, ranging from solo piano to lush symphonic versions. Three are featured in Carnegie Hall’s centenary celebration of the work, which includes not only Gershwin’s own two-piano arrangement (which was performed December 13 by Michael Feinstein and Jean-Yves Thibaudet), but also a full-on jazz treatment (the Marcus Roberts Trio with The Philadelphia Orchestra on January 23), and a new edition for piano and orchestra based on Gershwin’s handwritten score (Lee Musiker with The New York Pops on February 9, featuring Broadway star Montego Glover).

Feinstein’s love affair with Gershwin dates back to his childhood in Columbus, Ohio. “The first thing I heard by Gershwin was Rhapsody in Blue on an Andre Kostelanetz record when I was nine or 10,” he recalls. “When I heard that, something happened in my stomach that had never happened to me before.” En route to becoming the unofficial “ambassador of the Great American Songbook,” the pianist and singer spent six years working for Gershwin’s brother Ira as an archivist and cataloger, an experience chronicled in his 2012 memoir, The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs.

Feinstein found a kindred spirit in Thibaudet, a classically trained pianist who discovered the Rhapsody as a teenager in France. “When I played it the first time, I didn’t know what jazz was,” he admits. “I treated that piece like a Chopin concerto. I probably played it straight. What did I know?” Thibaudet eventually wised up: When he recorded the Rhapsody in 2010 with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he insisted on using the jazz-band arrangement that Ferde Grofé made for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in 1924. “The biggest revelation over the years is that injection of the jazz element. Then you play it very differently,” Thibaudet says.

Unlike many of Gershwin’s showtunes and popular songs, none of the individual themes from Rhapsody in Blue has become a jazz standard. Yet the work as a whole has stimulated the creative juices of a long line of jazz greats, from Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington to Marcus Roberts and Herbie Hancock. All, in their own ways, have brought out the improvisatory aspects of the music that were intrinsic to Gershwin’s conception. Roberts’s 1995 version, for example, combines Gershwin’s orchestral score with improvised breakouts and overlays by his jazz trio.

Although Gershwin himself was a master improviser who seldom played a piece the same way twice, Roberts admits that his freewheeling, highly personalized take on the beloved classic isn’t to everyone’s taste. “Folks had a hard time with it—‘Why would you change anything,’” he says he was asked. “I told them, ‘You have 250 [recorded] versions of it played as written, so if you don’t like mine, you can certainly check one of those out.’” Two decades later Roberts paid his respects to both Gershwin and Ravel— who were mutual admirers and influencers—in his cheekily titled Rhapsody in D.

Grofé, one of the most famous orchestrators of his day, made another arrangement of the Rhapsody in 1942, this time for full orchestra. It remained the go- to version until the 1970s, when conductor and pianist Michael Tilson Thomas spearheaded a revival of Gershwin’s original. Shorn of its symphonic finery, the jazz element in the score— exemplified by the famous wailing clarinet glissando at the beginning, the sensuous blue notes (flatted sevenths and thirds), and the syncopated rhythms that make the music swing as well as sing—is no less intoxicating today than it was in 1924.

Billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music,” Whiteman’s program was designed to showcase jazz as a serious art form, a notion that was, ironically, slower to win acceptance in the birthplace of jazz than in Europe.

Gershwin had been toying with the idea of writing a piano concerto in a hybrid jazz-classical idiom, but when Whiteman discovered that a rival bandleader was planning a similarly themed concert, he pressed the composer to move up the delivery date. Gershwin, in his own words, “set to work composing with unwonted rapidity.”

Carnegie Hall, Whiteman’s preferred venue, was already booked that February, so the concert was held instead in the more chamber music–friendly Aeolian Hall on West 43rd Street. Whiteman’s fame—and a well-orchestrated publicity campaign—ensured that all 1,100 seats were filled, and Rhapsody in Blue instantly became Gershwin’s calling card. (The work’s Carnegie Hall premiere came two months later, followed by the world premieres of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F and An American in Paris in 1925 and 1928, respectively.)

Olin Downes of The New York Times voiced the critical consensus when he wrote that the “composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk.” Gershwin’s ambitions did indeed extend beyond Broadway, as his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess would demonstrate; but it was Rhapsody in Blue, one of the best-known concert pieces of the 20th century, that made him a household name.

“The Rhapsody in Blue represented what I had been striving for since my earliest composition,” he wrote. “I wanted to show that jazz is an idiom not to be limited to a mere song and chorus."

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