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.
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.