Let’s Hear It for George Gershwin!

This evening, the 92nd Street Y – located on the upper east side of Manhattan – opens its 2015-16 season with a program dedicated to the music of iconic American composer and pianist, George Gershwin (1898-1937). Sold out months ago, the finale of tonight’s concert will be Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), written for jazz band and piano. Rhapsody bridges the gap between Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley and Broadway compositions (Strike Up the Band, Fascinating Rhythm, But Not for Me) and his classical work (Cuban Overture, Concerto in F, Porgy & Bess).

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George Gershwin

Commissioned by famed bandleader Paul Whiteman, Rhapsody in Blue was introduced by Whiteman and his band with Gershwin himself at the piano. The piece caused a sensation (with the audience, if not the critics) at its world premiere on Sunday afternoon, February 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall in New York City. It also fulfilled Gershwin’s ambition to be taken seriously as a composer.

Paul Whiteman is remembered as not only a successful bandleader but, also, as a trailblazer in American music. Although his moniker was the “King of Jazz”, he had much higher ambitions. Born into a musical family in 1890 – his mother was a former opera singer and his father held the position of supervisor of music for the public school system in Denver – he was surrounded by music throughout his childhood. By age 17, he was already a member of the Denver Symphony Orchestra and, later, of the San Francisco Symphony Opera. Following a stint conducting a U.S. Navy band, he created the Paul Whiteman Orchestra immediately following World War I. Within a few short years, Whiteman had expanded his empire to over two dozen bands and his annual income exceeded $1,000,000.

Whiteman Band
Paul Whiteman and his band

The concert at which Rhapsody had its premiere was part of a program entitled An Experiment in Modern Music. Whiteman preceded the concert with a brief lecture, during which he told the audience that he had conceived the afternoon as being “purely educational” and that the concert might “at least provide a stepping stone which will make it very simple for the masses to understand and, therefore, enjoy symphony and opera”.

Whiteman had programed an extremely long afternoon – 26 compositions – and the audience was clearly losing its interest (if not its mind) until the penultimate composition (or, in Broadway parlance, the 11:00 number), Gershwin’s Rhapsody.

The opening clarinet solo – instantly recognizable – was not explicitly what Gershwin had originally composed. During a rehearsal, clarinetist Ross Gorman played an extremely exaggerated glissando (an Italian musical term, meaning to glide from one tone to another) as a joke. Loving what he heard, Gershwin insisted that he perform the opening exactly that way at the performance, and that’s how it’s been done ever since.

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Gershwin and Whiteman

The performance of Rhapsody in Blue that afternoon saved the concert and most, if not all, of the other compositions are today largely forgotten. However, the finale of the concert, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, survives (as any high school graduate will tell you).

The reviews were wildly mixed and, during his lifetime, Gershwin got little respect from the critics for his “classical” endeavors. Nevertheless, within 3 short years, Whiteman’s band had performed Rhapsody 84 times, and its recording had sold over a million copies (in 1927, the entire population of the United States was 114 million).

Originally orchestrated for Whiteman’s band by Ferde Grofé, it was adapted in 1926 for a theatre orchestra and finally, in 1942, for a full symphony orchestra.

The great success of Rhapsody is that it has penetrated the national consciousness. While Gershwin often described the piece as “a musical kaleidoscope of America”, it has been more specifically associated with New York City.

And way beyond. For instance:

Those of you with long memories may recall the opening ceremonies from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles:

1984 Olympics

And, while I don’t personally endorse it:

United Airlines

But my personal favorite and, in my opinion, that which most truly informs Rhapsody in Blue, remains:

Manhattan

The band for tonight’s concert will be Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, an institution in New York City. Vince is known for his commitment to preserving and authentically presenting 1920s and 1930s jazz and popular music, so he and the Nighthawks are an inevitable fit for this program.

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Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks

For more information on tonight’s concert, please check out this link to the 92nd Street Y – and enjoy!

92nd Street Y – Opening Night Concert

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A Little Taste of Paris Down in Soho

Gentle Readers:

Who knew that I’d be blogging for a 2nd time in the past 12 hours, but I wanted to share our day with you and, also, pivot towards the other two prongs (“PRONGS”???) of this blog: food and art. I hope you won’t mind.

First of all, today presented a bit of a challenge, as it was the housekeeper’s day to be here and, although she doesn’t mind when we’re underfoot, AAC CPA doesn’t care for it at all. Please understand, we have a fabulous housekeeper – Nalini – and she’s been with us for more years that we can count. Nay, AAC just likes to have the place – the entire place, that is – to himself. So he’d rather clear out than share it. The fact that he shares it with me is a minor miracle, in fact.

NOTE: If opera isn’t your thing, please skip to below the CULTURE TIP below. 🙂

So, our first stop today was the Metropolitan Opera, where we’d been invited to a “working rehearsal” of Il Trovatore, with Anna Netrebko and Dimitri Hvorostovsky in the leading roles. We are very fortunate to be able to attend these rehearsals, as I very much enjoy the opera. AAC CPA is a bit more discerning. Yes, it’s true he’s attended something like 6 Ring Cycles over the years, but ask him to attend a mediocre performance of La Boheme and he’ll go right to sleep.

A working rehearsal, unlike a dress rehearsal or regular performance, means that there will be stops, things will be cleaned up, lights will be set and who knows what other mayhem may occur. Sure enough, there were some interesting repeats today. And you should have heard that Anvil Chorus!! And those men who worked the anvils – mamma mia!!!!

Anvil Chorus
See what I mean?

Madame Netrebko was in fabulous voice, even for a working rehearsal. And her core strength must be awesome, as she slowly lowered herself onto one knee as she sang a beautifully shaped phrase without any stress whatsoever on her beautiful voice. Talk about star quality!!

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Anna Nebtrebko in Il Trovatore at Salzburg

We were very fortunate to be able to hear Hvorostovsky. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in June and canceled all summer performances so that he could begin immediate treatment. While his vocal cords were unimpaired, he was having severe balance issues, which kept him off the stage. While our sopranos faint, jump off parapets, and often portray the weaker sex, we like our baritones sturdy. As it turns out, he’s been able to appear in the 1st three performances of this run of Trovatore, after which he’ll return to London for further treatment. We send him our best and hope for a complete and permanent recovery.

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Dimitri Hvorostovsky in Il Trovatore at the Met

We will be at his 3rd performance, which is on Saturday afternoon, October 3rd and, if you have any interest at all, you can attend, too. Or, at least you be there as a part of the Met’s Live in HD series. Cinemas all over the world will have a live transmission of this performance, with lots of fun looks backstage during the breaks. Tickets are around $22.00 (whereas you’d probably pay between $230 – $340 for an orchestra seat at the Met). A good deal, I’d say.

CULTURE TIP: Live in HD

We stayed at the Met ’til the first break, in the middle of Act I, Scene iii (Azucena had just admitted that she’d thrown the wrong baby – her own son!!! – into the fire – don’t ask!), and decided it was time to head downtown for a little taste of Paris in Soho. By that, I mean we decided to have lunch on the patio at Laduree. Do you know it or have you, perhaps, eaten or shopped there when you were in Paris? It’s an institution and you really know that you’re in Paris when you enter its doors. Before you can get to the restaurant, though, you have to pass through the patisserie, which just made my mouth water as I typed that word.

The Laduree in Soho has a lovely shaded patio, where we sat and enjoyed a leisurely lunch of club sandwiches. All around us, people were chatting in French and, if you closed your eyes and took a bite of your sandwich, you would swear you were on the Rue de Rivoli or the Champs-Élysées. It was that good. And, in fact, here’s AAC CPA anticipating his lunch:

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Yes, it’s AAC CPA at Laduree

And here’s lunch:

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Laduree Club Sandwich

Let me just say that Laduree didn’t let us down. We had a very civilized meal on their beautiful patio between the Il Trovatore and the next Italian experience we were about to have.

CUISINE TIP: Laduree

After our delightful lunch, it was time to turn our attention to the world of Italian neorealism. Our new favorite movie house in New York, Film Forum, has just started a Vittorio De Sica retrospective, and this afternoon we went to see what is arguably his greatest film, Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). It is a film that we’ve known about for many years, but just saw for the first time today. Almost plotless, it shows the desperate circumstances in which the working class found itself in post-war Italy. A somber and tragic film and yet laced throughout with moments of humor. Check it out here:

CULTURE TIP: Bicycle Thieves at Film Form

And that was our day. When we got back to the apartment, the place was so clean that you could eat off of the floors. That’s no joke – Nalini is that good.

Now begins the task of packing for London and our crossing on Queen Mary 2. We leave for JFK in 36 hours. Tick, tock, everyone!!