Congratulations to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for programming a most interesting evening of music exploring the ever-translucent boundaries between classical and popular music in the context of American theater music. Wayne Marshall, a British conductor, pianist and organ recitalist, is one of the foremost interpreters of Gershwin, Bernstein, and other 20th century American composers who bridged that musical gap. Throughout 2018, he conducted many Bernstein centenary celebrations, and this year came to Baltimore to perform and conduct the 100th anniversary of the Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Maestro Marshall conducted and played with amazing versatility and strength.…an outstanding concert and a remarkable feat for the orchestra to create, in rhythm and melody, the descriptive atmosphere of compositions erasing the line between classical and theatrical music in the jazz idiom.
The program opened with Aaron Copland’s “Music for the Theater,” a suite for chamber orchestra. It was first premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, in 1925. Copland was determined to find an “American” sound in classical music, so he imbued the catchy jazz idioms and rhythms of the Roaring Twenties into his early compositions, causing much scandal in 1920s concert halls. Copland said, “The music seemed to suggest a certain theatrical atmosphere, so after developing the idea into five short movements, I chose the title.”
The “Prologue” begins with a trumpet fanfare and snare drum roll followed by an oboe solo over a chorus of strings. It ends in a scurry of instruments recalling busy streets and sidewalks. The “Dance” provides comedy with a “bluesy” clarinet and a bit of 1894s “Sidewalks of New York” (“East Side, West Side”). The “Interlude” is somewhat mysterious and dreamy, with the English horns repeating the fanfare quietly. The “Burlesque,” with its pounding percussion and brass, recalls the days when ecdysiasts Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, and Lili St. Cyr danced on vaudeville stages. The “Epilogue” gives the clarinet the opportunity to once more repeat the fanfare. The orchestra brings a sense of repose and nostalgia as the music drifts to a close.
“Rhapsody in Blue” was envisioned by band leader Paul Whiteman as a jazz concerto, and he persuaded Gershwin to compose it, marking Gershwin’s transition to being a composer of classical music as well as music for film and theater. Initially composed for two pianos, “Rhapsody” was orchestrated for solo piano and orchestra by Ferde Grofe. It was first performed by the composer and Whiteman’s band in February, 1924, in New York’s Aeolian Hall at a concert grandly entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Gershwin stated: “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”
Maestro Marshall conducted and played with amazing versatility and strength. From the beautiful opening clarinet glissando through the five major themes, he led the orchestra with vigor and expression. The slow, broad, and exuberant orchestral sections were contrasted with the improvisational style of the rhythmic piano solos. The mid-section, originally entirely improvised by Gershwin, was an outstanding example of Marshall’s inspirational, sensitive solo piano playing. One hundred years has not only sustained but increased “Rhapsody in Blue” in popularity among concertgoers.
Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town: Three Dance Episodes” premiered in 1946 with the composer at the podium of the San Francisco Symphony. Bernstein had written music for the 1944 ballet, “Fancy Free,” choreographed by Jerome Robbins. They then collaborated in the same year on the Broadway musical “On the Town.” Both ballet and musical featured the story of three sailors on shore leave looking for love in New York City, but actually falling in love with the city itself. The first episode, “The Great Lover,” is a dream ballet sequence in which one sailor searches for “Miss Turnstile,” a woman he sees pictured on a subway poster. The brief, snappy music of the strutting woodwinds and the prominent trombone highlighted the romantic fury of the orchestra. The second episode, “Lonely Town,” a pas de deux, features another sailor who flirts with, and then abandons, a naive girl in Central Park. The lush, sensual strings, with their nervous energy, evoked the bittersweet and reflective melancholy of the scene. The third episode, “Times Square,” conveys the sailors’ youthful affection and enthusiasm for the city with the musical’s best known theme, “New York, New York.” Here, the orchestra played a series of variations on the melody, and the interrupted repetitions reminded the audience of the sexy, untiring energy of the city. The dance music in all three segments reflects the popular swing music of the big band era.
The final piece in the program, Duke Ellington’s “Harlem,” was commissioned by conductor Arturo Toscanini in 1950 as part of a larger orchestral suite planned as a tribute to New York. When this project fell through, Ellington premiered the piece as a solo in 1951 at a benefit concert for the NAACP at the Metropolitan Opera House and later that year recorded it under the title “A Tone Parallel to Harlem Suite.” In 1955, Luther Henderson orchestrated a full symphonic version for a Carnegie Hall debut.
The opening trumpet cry of the piece, mouthing the word “Harlem,” indicates that the composer is taking the audience on a tour of the city within a city. In the first section, the BSO used this motive to describe the spirituality and musical eclecticism of the multiethnic neighborhood. The second section introduced us to the African-American and Afro-Caribbean dance music reflected in Harlem’s cultural heritage. The third section becomes somber and introspective, ending in the music of a New Orleans funeral procession. A strident finale, partially composed by Ellington’s collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, ended the piece. It is interesting that “Harlem” has no part for piano, although both Ellington and Strayhorn were outstanding jazz pianists.
The audience gave the conductor and BSO several standing ovation encores of applause, especially according many shouts of “bravo” to the orchestra’s soloists. It was an outstanding concert and a remarkable feat for the orchestra to create in rhythm and melody the descriptive atmosphere of compositions erasing the line between classical and theatrical music in the jazz idiom.
Running Time: Two hours with one intermission.
“Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue’ with Conductor/Pianist Wayne Marshall and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was performed on February 2 and 4, 2024 at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral Street, Baltimore MD 21201 and on February 3, 2024 at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda MD 20852. For more information and to purchase tickets for future events, please call the Box Office in Baltimore at 410-728-8000 or Bethesda at 1-877-276-1444 or go online. Box Office hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday/Sunday, 12 noon-5 p.m. The Box Office is also open one hour before the performance and through intermission for walk-up sales.