in: Reviews

July 4, 2015

BSO’s Americana Anticipated the Fourth


Tanglewood began its Independence Day celebration with an eve-of-the-Fourth BSO program entirely made up of Americana. The Canadian conductor Jacques Lacombe, who also directs the New Jersey Symphony, led the players in music by John Harbison, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Duke Ellington.

John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby (Foxtrot for Orchestra) was played for the first time by the BSO. Harbison created it as part of an early attempt to turn F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby into an opera. At the time he was unable to get rights to the novel, but he completed this orchestral work as an overture to the unwritten opera. (Happily the situation changed in the following decade, and he composed The Great Gatsby on a commission from James Levine for the Metropolitan Opera.) The overture-to-be opens with an intense passage representing Gatsby’s aching “vision of the green light on Daisy’s dock,” as the composer describes it. The main body of the eight-minute work consists of a foxtrot melody, one of several tunes composed in the style of the 1920s, for use in the opera during the scenes of Gatsby’s parties. This develops and gradually breaks up into its thematic elements before concluding in a darker mood. After the performance, Harbison was warmly received by the audience in the Shed.

George Gershwin designed his Concerto in F as a full-fledged concerto in abstract musical style—utterly different from the hugely popular Rhapsody in Blue. Early critics called it a jazz concerto, but Gershwin disagreed. “I have attempted to utilize certain jazz rhythms worked out along more or less symphonic lines.” And indeed the work is far more classical in its layout than it is in any sense a jazz composition. Still, the choice of Russian-born Kirill Gerstein as soloist is especially fitting for this work, because he is almost unique in his professional training and talents both in the realm jazz and that of classical music. He played Gershwin’s technically demanding piano part brilliantly, but also introduced improvisational jazz touches, such as the lead-in to the piano’s first appearance in the opening movement.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the New York Philharmonic to play this music in the 1920s, when virtually all classical musicians regarded anything connected with jazz as low grade music, and when the mostly European-born members of the orchestra would have had no experience with the requisite jazz-related techniques. But certainly today’s BSO takes it fully in stride, with the slides and smears, the syncopations, and special effects particularly in the wind and brass instruments.

Gershwin biographer Howard Pollack, whose note appeared in the program, pointed out that the concerto never really established itself in Gershwin’s lifetime, but has since become “the single most performed and recorded American piano concerto.” Of course, Rhapsody in Blue is still done far more frequently. The Concerto in F is more abstract, far more difficult to parse, and sparing of the kind of great tune that made the Rhapsody so popular. But on Friday night it received a thoroughly dynamic and colorful interpretation from Lacombe, Gerstein, and the BSO.

Aaron Copland’s familiar Lincoln Portrait was supposed to have been narrated by Jessye Norman. A health issue prevent her from coming and she was replaced by the fine actor John Douglas Thompson, known recently for his participation in the one-man play Satchmo at the Waldorf, in which he played both Louis Armstrong virtually at the end of his career and his manager. He gave Lincoln’s words firmly and clearly, rising to a fine peroration at the close of the Gettysburg address.

Jacques Lacombe  and Kiril Gerstein (Hilary Scott photo)

Jacques Lacombe and Kiril Gerstein (Hilary Scott photo)

Duke Ellington’s Harlem, a real symphonic jazz work, was the closer. First performed in 1951 it appeared last night in the 1955 orchestration by Luther Henderson, edited by John Mauceri, and performed twice previously at Tanglewood under the direction of Seiji Ozawa and Keith Lockhart. This 15-minute tone poem suggests various neighborhoods in uptown Manhattan, though Ellington declined to give any precise identifications. Harlem is even more filled with the characteristics of jazz performance than Gershwin’s concerto. It seethes with busy colorful effects, making special demands on the woodwind and brass instruments that normally play major roles in big band compositions, while the strings more often than not served as aural background. It is not new to most BSO players, and their stylish play offered the largest ensemble of the evening and the fullest, most complex swinging textures.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.   


  1. I was unaware that the BSO was doing this program on July 3 (pity Pops can’t bring itself to do something like it on the Fourth), but it’s exactly the sort of thing that should be done for our national holiday. The Copland is not his greatest work, but that’s just a quibble.

    The Gershwin concerto–still unchallenged as America’s greatest–is a work of prodigious technical genius that should never be treated as a pops-concert throwaway; with virtually all the melodies related to the central tune, and a finely integrated large structure, it should command awe as well as affection. But what’s this about no melodies on a par with RiB? The lyric melody in the first movement leaps right out of the Gershwin songbook, and the second “episode” tune of the slow movement is to die for; it rips your heart out. As Ralph Freed so aptly put it, “I love a Gershwin tune, how about you?”

    I salute Jacques Lacombe and Kiril Gerstein for putting on the kind of concert that all American orchestras should have for the holiday. And thanks to Steven Ledbetter for his fine reportage.

    Comment by Vance Koven — July 5, 2015 at 11:34 am

  2. I could not agree more with Mr. Koven. No melodies in the Concerto to rival the Rhapsody? I would suggest a visit to an audiologist for those who still cannot hear a great melody when it passes them by. For me, indeed, the second episode tune of the slow movement is Gershwin’s most poignant theme outside the miraculous melody factory he created with Porgy and Bess.

    Mr. Ledbetter points out very astutely that the atmosphere surrounding the classical music establishment in the 1920’s and 30’s was downright hostile to anything even remotely associated with “Jazz” or popular music. It is quite the miracle that Gershwin was able to help break down that barrier and he should be revered for making symphonic music more, rather than less accessible to music lovers. With only 3 or 4% of the population having any interest in symphonic music, this is indeed a worthy goal.

    What Gershwin accomplished in his tragically short life is nothing short of remarkable. His extended compositions are unique in style and voice and they should be judged “sui generis”, not in comparison with the works of other classical composers.

    I just wish I could have attended Friday’s concert!

    Comment by Michel LeBlanc — July 6, 2015 at 10:01 am

  3. Wait a second. Before we condemn the entire classical music world of 1925-1945, take note that Steven Ledbetter was careful to note the New York Philharmonic, not the Boston Symphony.
    For Serge Koussevitzky’s response to the Rhapsody in Blue was to commission Gershwin for another
    work, what is now known as the Second Rhapsody. The more recent editions of Grove have a picture
    of Koussevitzky and Gershwin together on a sofa in the Symphony Hall Green Room.
    It was given the world premiere in Boston, January 1932. Here’s the URL of the program, courtesy of the BSO’s “Henry”:

    Fans of the Gershwin Concerto in F should look for the first recording, made in 1940 with Jesus Maria Sanroma with Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Gershwin was begging Sanroma to record the piece, especially after the very successful recording of the Rhapsody in Blue in 1935. Sadly, Sanroma was not
    able to fill the request before Gershwin died. But it is a sensational rendition, only Thibaudet is on that level.

    Comment by Brian Bell — July 6, 2015 at 12:01 pm

  4. Michael LeBlanc’s comment gives me an entree to flog another of my enthusiasms in American music, the work of John Alden Carptenter. In 1915, Carpenter wrote a piano concerto (he called it a Concertino, but it’s as long as any standard concerto) with a slow movement featuring a tune with soulful blues influence (his 1912 violin sonata likewise); in 1921 (three years before RiB) he wrote a ballet (his second ballet; I think he was the first American to write ballets) based on the Krazy Kat comic strip that had one section very much in jazz mode; and in 1926 he wrote another ballet, “Skyscrapers,” that not only gave a novel twist to the “industrial” music popular at the time, but included two dead-on imitations of other people’s music, one of Irving Berlin and the other of Gershwin–and used a suave harmonic idiom for the “Gershwin” that Gershwin himself wouldn’t adopt for another two years (in American in Paris). Interesting thought: who influenced whom?

    The point for these purposes is this: Carpenter was extremely well-regarded in his day; his every new piece got a prompt performance and attracted much praise. So there was in fact a fair degree of openness, as Brian Bell attests, to reflections of jazz and popular music in concert halls, just not uniformly–Americans were still a bit insecure in their musical maturity. Carpenter was from Chicago, where much forward thinking along these lines was happening. I doubt whether Boston would have been as open without Koussy, but New York’s classical music scene was surprisingly stodgy back then (though in fairness, Skyscrapers was premiered there). Copland, back from Paris, wrote a piano concerto the year after Gershwin’s, with a jazzy finale, but it didn’t make much headway (well, it had Gershwin to compete with!), and Copland pretty much gave up on jazz as an element in his music until he wrote a clarinet concerto for Benny Goodman 25 years later.

    Comment by Vance Koven — July 6, 2015 at 4:24 pm

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