Repertoire: Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin

May 23, 2011

“Rhapsody in Blue is a composition by George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band written in 1924, which combines elements of classical music withjazz-influenced effects. The composition was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé three times, in 1924, in 1926, and finally in 1942. The piece received its premiere in a concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music, which was held on February 12, 1924, in Aeolian HallNew York, by Paul Whiteman and his band with Gershwin playing the piano. The editors of the Cambridge Music Handbooks opined that “The Rhapsody in Blue (1924) established Gershwin’s reputation as a serious composer and has since become one of the most popular of all American concert works.”[1] (from wikipedia)

  Rhapsody in Blue  mentioned  in most Music History texts as being the first piece to employ Jazz in the Concert Hall, which it was not, this distinction belonging to the credit of Darius Milhaud who wrote in 1922, La Creation du Monde, a work much more indelibly jazz oriented than the Gershwin work.  This work , was composed to be performed as a ballet and is written for Flutes, Clarinets, Alto Saxophone , violins(one viola, usually omitted)) and bass , and perhaps most important, a full set of drums to be played by one player. For clarinetists, it has a long solo passage, difficult to play, but fun as well.
Considering the instrumentation it is a true hybrid, combining elements of both jazz and “classical”. The two works are completely different however, the Milhaud  reaching a climactic moment sounding like a session from long ago, the Rhapsody in a beautiful melody which intensifies until the final blues cadence, more like a symphonic work. The two works have little else in common. Interestingly enough, Gershwin had to be persuaded to write a work for solo piano and orchesra as a competition with the work of Vincent Lopez , a band leader who was competing with Paul Whiteman, more reknown in history for the many hit tunes he played during the 20s and 30s.
There had been an article in the New York Tribune, “what is American Music” , which inspired Whiteman, who  urged  Gershwin to write such a work  , which turned out to be Rhapsody in Blue. For whatever reasons, Rhapsody is Gershwins most popular work, played most frequently, while the Milhaud ballet, jazzier in nature and featuring a drummer playing a drum set (as was the fashion in clubs during the 20s) is more true to the idiom of Jazz,though much less frequently performed.
In the music history texts Gershwin is usually portrayed as a composer of symphonic music, perhaps Americas most famous. He was much more than that, having composed hundreds of pop-music tunes, many of which have become standards. Combining it all, Gershwin is much more like Franz Schubert, though much more popular in his time. Both were extremely prolific in different ways. but the Lieder of Schubert were as popular as were the pop-tunes of Gershwin, simply in a different historical context. Geshwins hits and Schuberts Lieder were on a par with one another and will remain so. Schubert was unfortunately not as successful as Gershwin, who started as a tin pan alley pianist and with his older brothr Ira, wrote some of the most enduring music o fhe previous century. Schubert was taken advantage of by music publishers and had to rely on the kindness of strangers and friends. Both were wonderful pianists, judging by the recordings and compositions of Gershwin, and Schubert by his extraordinary works for solo piano as well as some of the loveliest accompaniments to his lieder (love songs).
Both die unusual deaths,Gershwin on the operating table while in surgery for a brain tumor, and Schubert unceremoniously died from syphilis, which he had contracted from his mother, or so my physician friends and accompanists have told me.
While some stories are hearsay, most wind up in somebodys history book sometime, somewhere.
There are many stories regarding the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue in Aeolian Hall in NY in 1924. This was the beginning of trying to define what exactly was American music  and was first started by the Herald Tribune and its article of that title. Following was the composition of the work by Gershwin to help Paul Whiteman keep up with the others who were composing various works defining Jazz as part of American music. Rhapsody in Blue was by far the most successful work by Gershwin and has remained at the top of the performed repertoire .
The interesting thing about the opening glissando heard on the first recording was that it has never been played as well , by anyone. Why? If one can assume that the first recording is valid, it has a glissando that extends for almost two octaves. No other recording duplicates that length.
Ross Gorman, who was Paul Whitemans clarinetist plays the opening and makes the glssando last from d below the staff all the way to the high C. Nobody has ever made the gliss that long. For the many players who have written in, concerning the glissando, various answers can be given about fingering and embouchure, but the answer for Gorman was that he could do it, had made recording with his own group wherein he imitates a dogs bark, and must have used a couple of things  not usually mentioned. One anecdotal story is that he was drunk at the time.No. There are no breaks whatever for the entire glssando.No matter who claims what, listen for the length and smoothness of the glissando. I have found that only Gormans makes it evenly for that length. How ? He had to be using a soft reed, very soft, and an open mouthpiece, but first and foremost, he was a wonderful player, wonderfully glib and when Gershwin heard it, he asked that it be performed at the concert in that manner, and voila, that is the way it has been perfomed since, but never as  as I have heard in that exact manner.(listen to the trill. as he makes a crescendo, it gets slightly f lat, signaling much of what was going on in his mouth and throat. Bending notes is part of playing the clarinet in Jazz and also in certain avant garde compositions as well. I can only say is what to listen for is the length of the glissando and how evenly it is executed. Gorman with Whiteman and Gershwin playing the piano is among th best. It is not going to get you a job, and you will  have fun,   . Here is the recording: (paste the address in your browser.
Keep well and keep practicing.

” When Mahler Took Manhattan”

May 18, 2011

By PETER G. DAVIS (New York Times)

HERE’S an often overlooked bit of music history: Gustav Mahler, who died in Vienna a century ago today, was a New Yorker for the last three years of his life and, for that brief time, arguably the most famous musician in town. It’s not a trivial point — as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and then at the New York Philharmonic, he set musical standards that resonate even today.

New York has always held its conductors in chief close. Mahler was followed by Arturo Toscanini, who ruled the musical scene for nearly half a century. New York’s love affair with Leonard Bernstein was long and adoring, while James Levine is no less appreciated today, as we celebrate his 40 years at the Met and worry over his health.

Despite his short time among us, Mahler left as large a footprint as his successors. Already a world-famous composer and conductor, he was hired by the Met in 1907, and he arrived with a reputation as an autocrat who demanded nothing less than perfection.

In his previous post at the Vienna Court Opera, this newspaper reported at the time, this “martinet” had “reformed everything … He was orchestral conductor, singer, actor, stage manager, scenic painter, costumer.” Worse still, Mahler was rumored to be a difficult, even neurotic personality more interested in composing endless symphonies no one wanted to hear than in working in an opera house.

All that was bad news for Met artists and administrators accustomed to more easygoing managers. They were also used to conductors who specialized in one style, be it Mozart, Wagner or the latest contemporary novelties. Mahler could do them all, and expected his performers to follow suit.

The skeptics could not have been more wrong. Mahler turned out to be a charismatic and supremely well-organized conductor who knew precisely what he wanted from an orchestra and how to get it. He continued his exacting work methods at the Met, making his debut on New Year’s Day 1908 with a painstakingly prepared performance of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” that was enthusiastically applauded by the city’s music critics for its “finely spun texture” and “iridescent web of tone.”

Mahler then demanded, and received, an unprecedented 15 rehearsals for Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” which had long been presented by the Met, according to music critic W. J. Henderson, as “a bargain-counter attraction.” He forged an immaculate ensemble guaranteed to make connoisseurs of “golden age” singers salivate, including Emma Eames, Marcella Sembrich and Feodor Chaliapin. Then Mahler turned to Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” After the final curtain, wrote Henderson, “the house went crazy.”

Unfortunately for Mahler, and the Met, it was over all too soon. An unexpected change in management brought Toscanini to the company for the 1908-09 season, and a clash between these two giants, polar opposites in their tastes and priorities, was inevitable. Given the circumstances, Mahler needed little encouragement to accept the Philharmonic’s invitation to become its music director in 1909.

Mahler reigned supreme at Carnegie Hall. His intensely focused, highly charged interpretations, with their unusual coloristic touches and rhythmic freedom, demanded close attention, but audiences approved of what they heard.

Apart from a few hostile critics and the usual rough-and-tumble of a busy conductor’s life, Mahler found the music scene in New York relatively benign after the poisonous musical intrigues he had endured in Vienna. Mahler enjoyed a full social life and established many close friendships; indeed, the once accepted portrait of Mahler as a tormented and solitary ascetic, literally hounded to death by New York’s society-oriented music community, now seems to have been largely a fiction created by the self-serving memoirs of his wife, the beautiful and flirtatious Alma.

Mahler was hardly free of cares during those final three years. Several months before arriving in New York his 4-year-old daughter had died, and he himself had been diagnosed with a heart infection — endocarditis, a slow-moving disease but invariably fatal in those days. Another blow came in 1910 when he discovered that his beloved Alma was having a torrid affair with the architect Walter Gropius.

Nevertheless, Mahler never stinted on his work with the Philharmonic as he prepared one concert after another, learned new scores, toured with the orchestra and kept up with his summer composing schedule. He even found time in August 1910 to visit Sigmund Freud back in Europe to help him through the Alma crisis.

Mahler left New York in April 1911, and died in Vienna the following month. Still, fleeting traces of his influence on the Philharmonic may be heard even today. He reorganized the orchestra, hired new musicians, rehearsed them tirelessly and greatly increased the number of concerts, laying the foundation of the orchestra we know today.

Indeed, even some Philharmonic musicians acknowledge feeling an extra sense of commitment when they play a Mahler symphony today, simply because the composer had once lived and worked with their predecessors.

Bernstein certainly agreed. Perhaps more than any conductor of his generation, he strongly identified with Mahler and helped bring his music into the mainstream of the orchestral repertory. “I am Mahler,” Bernstein said on more than one occasion, implying not so much an actual reincarnation as a repository of his all-embracing musical spirit. Small wonder that Bernstein is buried with the score of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony placed over his heart.

It was Mahler’s freshly imagined interpretive style of orchestral performance, its special qualities of instrumental blend, dynamic nuance and rhythmic plasticity that both inspired the musicians of the Philharmonic and mesmerized New York audiences all those years ago. What did a typical Mahler concert sound like? We will never know. But the sheer expressive boldness of those vast, risk-taking late-Romantic symphonies tell us that Mahler the composer and Mahler the conductor surely inhabited the same musical world”. From The New York Times, May 18,2011

Repertoire : Ravel, Introduction and Allegro, Fl. Cl., Str.4-tet, and harp

May 13, 2011

Dear Mr. Friedland:

As you are an expert, I hope you can help me.
In four weeks we have to play in a small concert. I´m trying to find music for this occasion.
For this occasion our ensemble consists of the following instruments:
flute, clarinet, violin(2), viola, violoncello, double bass. (and eventually piano).

I hope you can give me some advice.
Best regards, BB (from somewhere in Europe)

Dear BB:

thank you for the compliment.I do not think however that an expert exists who has not performed the works in question: “Chamber Music for a varied group pf players”

Without making my rsponse seem a self- agrandizing piece, the performance of chamber music, specifically as much as I could possibly perform well, has been my chosen lifes work.

It comes from wanting to spend as little time in the coffee shop of the conservatory , to as much time as I could playing the clarinet. Anyone attending a conservatory of music, where performance is stressed whould want this. If not, you are definitely in the wrong business.
My personal goal was emphasized by the fact that at the time, I played a new system of clarinet fingering: Mazzeo System, which was not so different but enough to establish new habits of playing . The best way is to perform as much as possible.

This was the course I chose, and I have amassed many performances of standard as well as new chamber music.
I advise this for any serious student who may be reading this. Keep practicing, keep playing, and keep performing, and keep your standards up, as high as you can hear, which is what governs our achievments in clarinet playing.

Anyone can simply list works, but that would not be fair for either you or me. All of the works to be listed, I have played for many years.
The first work is a great one, by Maurice Ravel, a truly   gifted composer who lived until the mid 1930s (1937), was not only one of the finest of the whole french group of composers, but without a doubt,the best orchestrator of instruments since Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov himself, a (Russian with) prodigious talent in orchestration.

The Inroduction and Allegro was conceived in 1905 and first performed in 1907.

Composed on a commission from the manufacturer of pedal harps Dual Action Erard , this work is almost contemporary to dance sacred and profane Dance for harp and strings of Claude Debussy , written  to promote competition, a new chromatic harp competitor from the manufacturerPleyel . This is the model Erard will be the modern harp, the Pleyel of falling into oblivion.

The Introduction and Allegro was composed for Flute, Clarinet, String Quartet, and Harp. Almost every harpist of advanced kevel has played the piece or learned it, and it is called one of the most challenging works for the instrument. While it takes only 11 minutes, it is truly a little masterpiece, worth the effort, and not terribly difficult, especially if you have a quartet that is somewhat established. They can easily rehearse the work with their other obligations, and you will not have difficulty with a troublesome cellist (there is a big cello solo and a person can run with it, as they say). There is an introduction played by violin and viola, followed by the cello solo, (accomanied by double-tonguing in the winds,(not difficult and can be negotiated) which played in  accelerando which brings the ensemble quickly intothe Allegro, where the harp really has an outstanding and difficult part. This is a work greatly appreciated by any audience and is easily placed at the end of the concert, perhaps with one of the many ensemble works with either flute, or clarinet and harp

The nice thing about this is that the harpist will almost always know the piece from memory perfectly, always refreshing these days when time is money. We must remember that these works were composed when rehearsal time was not an issue. You just worked until it was ready, time and rehearsals were not ever a problem, the performnce was what counts.

Of course, this is no longer the consideration, time being of the essence. If you are the organizer of the rehearsals and the performance, make sure that you have enough rehearsal time. The feeling of being prepared when you go onstage is truly wonderful and inspiring. So, we come to one of the big obstacles in the way of performing a large amount of chamber music, which is not only beautiful but very helpful in simply learning the repertoire with other players. Ones breadth of experience is heightened. There are also many departments which have opportunities for chamber music players, who can not only teach orchestra parts, but cause the kind of ferment within a music department that can bring all kinds of good things, for you .

Keep practicing, and performing,