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Gershwin and Still: Homage or Steal?


William Grant Still
William Grant Still

The Longwood Symphony is featuring two interestingly paired American composers alongside Beethoven at its next Jordan Hall concert. George Gershwin introduced the world to songs including “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You” through his 1930 musical Girl Crazy. LSO will open with Leroy Anderson’s orchestral suite featuring these and other tunes from Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley classic. A contemporary of Gershwin, William Grant Still—considered the “dean” of African-American composers—utilized jazz and blues harmonies to depict a vision of an integrated society in “Song of a New Race.” The program closes with Beethoven’s virtuosic “Emperor” Concerto, featuring famed Boston pianist David Deveau.

The news hook then for Longwood Symphony’s next concert is the William Grant Still connection. Celeste Headlee, the grandaughter of the African-American symphonist, will be on hand to talk about her grandfather and his music on Thursday evening March 13, 2014 at 6:00 PM at Berklee College of Music. BMInt posed some questions about the program for the LSO’s Music Director, Ronald Feldman.

THE LSO will be preceding Still’s Symphony No. 2 in G Minor, “Song of a New Race” with a suite from Gershwn’s Girl Crazy. Apparently a tune of Still is quoted in the Gershwin. Is this an homage, a borrow or a steal? Beyond the programmatic connection of the tune, what induced you to pair the pieces?

On every LSO concert I have programmed these past two years I have included music of American composers. I have made a commitment to new music for most of my professional musical life, most often but not exclusively the music of living American composers. Although one can’t really call this music “new” I’ll bet that very few audience members will have heard this before.

So programming American composers is not unusual for us. When I was researching repertoire for this LSO season my listening binge brought me to the music of William Grant Still. Although I was familiar with a couple of his chamber works I had never heard his symphonic music. I listened to the second symphony and discovered a jewel; rich harmonies, brilliant orchestration, jazz inflected rhythms, all a part of a symphony that can stand up to the finest of the genre. When I decided to program it I did some research into the music of WGS, and was fascinated to read about the controversy involving the origin of George Gershwin’s most famous tune “I Got Rhythm”. I discovered much to my surprise that there is substantial evidence attributing the tune to WGS. I decided to pair Gershwin’s medley “Girl Crazy”, which contains the tune, “IGR” with the second symphony to draw attention to this very interesting controversy.

How do these two pieces play to the strengths of the LSO?

My priorities with every orchestra include color, flexibility and listening skills. The LSO has developed a rich balanced sound. In addition they have learned to be ready to change tempo and dynamics, creating a more chamber music approach to orchestral playing, more spontaneous if you will.

The Gershwin and especially the Still are pieces that are perfect for this approach. With the Still the LSO is able to show off a rich sound. The orchestration is perfect for this. The orchestra has embraced the approach needed to create a warm full sound. The music offers many opportunities for rubato that play into my approach to music in general. The Still is a romantic ride that is playing right into our strengths.

How jazzy is the Still and will the LSO swing?

It is filled with rich jazz harmonies. The third movement especially really swings!

THE LSO spends more time rehearsing for each concert than say, the BSO. How much time do you spend, and is it a chore or a pleasure for a conductor who was himself such a quick study as a cellist?

The interesting thing about working with an orchestra, the BSO or the LSO, is that there is never enough rehearsal time. Intonation can always be improved. The balance can be better. The ensemble can be better. I think we all feel the joy of improving from rehearsal to rehearsal, from movement to movement and from phrase to phrase. I love giving information to an orchestra that gives them an opportunity to play their best. This is very rewarding for me. No orchestra I conduct will sound like the Boston Symphony but they will make greater improvements during the rehearsal period.

THE LSO’s outreach programs are laudable if not unique. Please tell us what they have meant to you and if your enthusiasm for that role helped you land the music director job.

I am honored to spend one night a week with a group of people who take their service to the community so seriously. When I hear their stories and witness the Community Partners they champion I couldn’t be more pleased with the role I play. It’s a given that he LSO draws attention to the far greater goal of serving our Community Partners.

Ronald Feldman (file photo)
Ronald Feldman (file photo)

Tell us about your collaborative history with pianist David Deveau and how you chose to invite him to play the Emperor Concerto.

When I engage a soloist I ask for concerto preferences. David was partial to the Emperor. It’s a monumental concerto, one I was very happy to program! The first movement alone is a meal in itself, if you will excuse the culinary metaphor. It is what I call an anchor piece, in other words a work that is part of the core of the symphonic repertory.

All throughout my professional life I have collaborated with many artists, composers, pianists, string players, wind players, conductors, etc. I have had the very good fortune to work with David on many occasions. He’s been my soloist and chamber music collaborator many times over the years. In short, David is a maestro. He is a wonderful pianist, a complete musician. Tradition, historical context, musical knowledge and anecdotes are all a part of working with David. We always have great fun putting things together and then celebrating the aftermath.

We’re going to put on a nice show on Saturday!

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