Notes on the Program
by Dr. Richard E. Rodda
Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra
(b. Brooklyn, New York, 1898; d. Hollywood, California, 1937)
Composed in 1925.
Premiered on December 3, 1925 in New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch with the composer as soloist.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion and strings.
Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony and one of this country’s most prominent musical figures for the half-century before World War II, was among the Aeolian Hall audience when George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue exploded above the musical world on February 12, 1924. He recognized Gershwin’s genius (and, no doubt, the opportunity for wide publicity), and approached him a short time later with a proposal for another large-scale work. A concerto for piano was agreed upon, and Gershwin was awarded a commission from the New York Symphony to compose the piece, and also to be the soloist at its premiere and a half dozen subsequent concerts. The story that Gershwin then rushed out and bought a reference book explaining what a concerto is is probably apocryphal. He did, however, study the scores of some of the concertos of earlier masters to discover how they had handled the problems of structure and instrumental balance, and he also obtained a copy of Forsyth’s Standard Manual of Orchestration. Gershwin felt he needed a book on this latter subject because he, like virtually all Broadway composers then and now, entrusted the orchestration of his theater scores to a professional arranger. (The Rhapsody in Blue was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé.) This new concerto, he decided, would be entirely his own work, so he set about learning the techniques of writing for the symphony orchestra.
Gershwin later recorded his attitude toward the composition of the Concerto. “Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident,” he wrote. “Well, I wanted to show that there was plenty more where that had come from. I made up my mind to do a piece of ‘absolute’ music. The Rhapsody, as its title implied, was a blues impression. The Concerto would be unrelated to any program. And that is exactly how I wrote it. I learned a great deal from that experience, particularly in the handling of instruments in combination.” He made the first extensive sketches for the work while in London during May 1925. By July, back home, he was able to play for his friends large fragments of the evolving work, tentatively entitled “New York Concerto.” The first movement was completed by the end of that month, the second and third by September, and the orchestration carried out in October and November, by which time the title had become simply Concerto in F. Because of the large royalties from his shows and the Rhapsody in Blue, he was able to hire a full orchestra for a trial performance during the process of orchestration. He not only revised the scoring and made some cuts after this session, but also admitted that the run-through gave him the “greatest musical thrill” of his life.
The Concerto is in the jazz-inspired idiom of the Rhapsody in Blue. The work’s premiere, on December 3, 1925, was a success, though it did not engender unbridled enthusiasm as had the Rhapsody. Damrosch, however, was more than pleased with the style of the new work, as he testified in this colorful account: “Various composers have been walking around jazz like a cat around a plate of hot soup, waiting for it to cool off, so they could enjoy it without burning their tongues, hitherto accustomed only to the more tepid liquid distilled by the cooks of the classical school. Lady Jazz, adorned with her intriguing rhythms, has danced her way around the world, even as far as the Eskimos of the North and the Polynesians of the South Sea Isles. But for all her travels and her sweeping popularity, she has encountered no knight who could lift her to a level that would enable her to be received as a respectable member of musical circles. George Gershwin seems to have accomplished this miracle. He has done it boldly by dressing this extremely independent and up-to-date young lady in the classic garb of a concerto. Yet he has not detracted one whit from her fascinating personality. He is the Prince who has taken Cinderella by the hand and openly proclaimed her a princess to the astonished world.”
Gershwin provided a short analysis of the Concerto for the New York Tribune of November 29, 1925, just four days before the work’s premiere:
“The first movement employs a 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 kettledrums, supported by other percussion instruments and with a Charleston motif introduced by bassoon, horns, clarinets and violas. 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 the same pace throughout.”
Though Gershwin based his Concerto loosely on classical formal models, its structure is episodic in nature. His words above do not mention several other melodies that appear in the first and second movements, nor the return of some of those themes in the finale as a means of unifying the work’s overall structure. He was learning as he went, and this Concerto is nothing short of astonishing when it is realized that it was only his second concert work, written when he was just 27 years old. Few other composers could boast of such a successful beginning. Noting the brilliant natural talent displayed in the Concerto, Milton Cross wrote, “[The flaws in Gershwin’s large works] become insignificant when placed beside the many strong points: the amazing melodic inventiveness; the never-failing freshness of ideas; the basic feeling for rhythm; the extraordinary instincts which dictated the proper effect and the precise means; the unfailing inspiration in getting the idea required by the big moment. His talent, in short, was a conservatory in itself.”
Visions of America, Photo Symphony for Vocalists, Chorus and Orchestra
Music by Roger Kellaway
(Born November 1, 1939 in Newton, Massachusetts)
Photography by Joseph Sohm
(Born February 28, 1948 in Webster Groves, Missouri)
Lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman
(Born September 11, 1925 and November 10, 1929, both in Brooklyn, New York)
Composed in 2008.
Premiered on January 25, 2009 by the Philly Pops at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, conducted by Peter Nero with Patti Austin as soloist.
Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two B-flat clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, three percussion, harp, strings, piano rhythm bass, drum set, vocal soloists, chorus and narration.
Visions of America is a groundbreaking multimedia celebration of America. Combining the words and philosophies of America’s founders with sublime imagery and original symphonic music, Visions of America presents a compelling visual-musical portrait of Democracy. The concert is premised upon the question: “How do you photograph an idea (i.e., democracy)?” The answer unfolds during our concert’s journey through America, where audiences explore the ideas, hopes and dreams that bind us together. In encountering the landscapes, cityscapes, small towns and rituals that define us as a people, the audience realizes that it is this generation of Americans that is the recipient and caretaker of the founders’ Vision of America.
— Roger Kellaway and Joseph Sohm
©2012 Dr. Richard E. Rodda