To cap its 50th-anniversary season, Monadnock Music threw itself a party before (and during) its concert Friday at the Peterborough Town House, while seeking to show its friends a good time with an all-Gershwin program. The Monadnock Chamber Orchestra under Gil Rose morphed into a version of Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra, with piano soloist Alan Feinberg (himself a former Monadnock artistic director) and soprano Abigail Krawson, simulated a Whiteman evening using actual or adapted Whiteman arrangements of the Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, and a variety of numbers from the great Gershwin songbook.
The musical events, which were preceded by festive edibles and visual displays celebrating the multi-venue summer music festival’s half century, began appropriately (and, one might say, inevitably) with “Strike Up the Band” from the eponymous 1927 musical. It was ingratiatingly peppy, rousing and “black in the brass.” Rose has delved into the Paul Whiteman collection now housed at Williams College, and while the program booklet didn’t mention whether this was one of the standard Ferde Grofé arrangements for Whiteman, it featured lively cross-rhythms and interpolations from Sousa.
The featured “classical Gershwin” works, which straddled the intermission, began with the Rhapsody. As is well known, Whiteman asked Gershwin in 1923 to write a concerted piece for a program early the following year that would attempt to cross the divide between jazz and classical idioms (it is not well remembered that the other commissioned work for that concert was Victor Herbert’s Suite, his final composition). Jazz elements had already been creeping into art music: John Alden Carpenter’s 1921 ballet Krazy Kat, based on the comic strip, had one jazzy section in it (two works of Carpenter’s from the ‘teens contained definite blues influences), and Milhaud’s La creation du monde had premiered in October 1923. But Whiteman’s ambitions were greater—he sought what we would now call a true crossover music, where the jazz elements were not treated as exoticism, but as a stylistic font from which art music in the European tradition could be formed. Gershwin agreed to the commission, came up with an overall plan for the work, but then forgot about it for a while, until he was jolted into action by a newspaper notice of the concert. Because of the time crush, and because of the unique capabilities of Whiteman’s players, who were adept at doublings on instruments far removed from the ones they nominally played, Gershwin handed off the orchestration of the short score to Grofé. As Howard Pollack’s magisterial Gershwin biography indicates, Gershwin by then had ample schooling in orchestration to have done the job—at least with a more conventional ensemble—and in fact gave Grofé some detailed instructions that the orchestrator honored. The great exception, of course, was the startling clarinet glissando that opens the work, for which the world is indebted to Ross Gorman, who improvised it during rehearsal, and which Gershwin immediately and enthusiastically endorsed. On Friday, Gary Gorczyca dispatched it with aplomb, stretching it nearly to the breaking point but holding fast to the final pitch; he added further portamento to the melody the slide begins, as did other players, notably the trumpets.
Whiteman augmented his usual Palais Royal dance band ensemble for the concert to a total of 23, plus Gershwin as soloist, mostly by adding more strings, French horns and other “classical” instruments. Rose’s graciously acknowledged his ensemble of 34, plus Feinberg as a tribute to the versatility of the Whiteman band. That said, the ensemble Rose assembled performed with great panache. The overall result, though, was less than the sum of its parts, for three principal reasons. First, there was not enough evidence of a strong structural concept underlying Rose’s interpretation. The piece, though in one movement, has five sections that mimic the traditional multi-movement classical format, each with its own tempo indication and key structure; but at 30,000 feet, it reads like a rounded AB form. We didn’t get the parts-making-a-whole feeling from Rose’s approach, nor, at a completely different level, did we get the electrifying brilliance and audacity of Gershwin’s execution; the reduced orchestration (what one usually hears in concerts today is Grofé’s later full-orchestra version) should promote greater clarity of line, but sections were muddy and in some places the bass and interior parts covered the principal lines. Granted, it’s not easy to bring this freshness over in a piece that has become such a standard, but one has to try; and if Rose did try, we didn’t sense it in the outcome; it didn’t seem as though his heart was really in it. Second, Rose ripped through it at tempi that flattened the emotional power of Gershwin’s melodies and harmonies, which despite the jazz context grew out of the great European Romantic traditions of Liszt, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky. The great lyric melody is marked andantino, which is slower than andante; this time it was more like an allegretto. Finally, sad to say, the soloist wasn’t completely on top of things. Having both the Rhapsody and the concerto on the same program is a demanding challenge, and it seemed as though Feinberg gave most of his attention to the latter. His efforts in the former were often mechanical, choppy, and not well coordinated with the orchestra.
The concerto afforded an opportunity to rectify the superficialities of the Rhapsody performance, and in some respects things went better after intermission. The story of the arrangement is an interesting one, though as Rose also remarked, it is not correct (as the Monadnock Music publicity had it) that it was “the original” one, nor even the original Grofé one. Gershwin wrote the concerto on commission from the New York Symphony (which later merged with the NY Phil) and scored it for full symphony orchestra. Sadly, it didn’t get that much traction during Gershwin’s lifetime. Whiteman, however, wanted to have it in his repertoire, and so asked Grofé to reduce the scoring for Whiteman’s ensemble. He did this in 1928, and even abridged the work somewhat, but Whiteman didn’t get much for his investment either; it got very little play (according to Pollack, Gershwin didn’t much like the reduction, though he apparently didn’t deep-six it either) until 1987, when it resurfaced in the Whiteman archives and was recorded by Russell Sherman and Gunther Schuller with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s; it has also been done by Jean-Yves Thibaudet and the Baltimore Symphony [here]. Rose didn’t hew precisely to the Grofé version, but adapted it with the help of others. It has a distinct and somewhat strange sound to anyone familiar with the standard version—for example, a kind of buzzing and honking by the horns and winds in the introduction. Both Feinberg and Rose were far more nuanced in their approaches to rhythm, dynamics and expression here than in the Rhapsody, which was all to the good. There were still places where it seemed that secondary material was being allowed to interfere with the principal lines, and while it’s fine to bring out inner parts that otherwise get lost (and a reduced orchestration is a great opportunity to do just that), principal voices that shouldn’t get muffled as they all too often did. There were other interpretive choices that didn’t resonate, such as the loud, fat sound of the saxophone in the second-episode theme of the slow movement, although the sound of the muted trumpets (Grofé apparently specified a different type of mute for the concerto than for the Rhapsody) was charming. The finale had good rhythmic drive and propulsion.
Feinberg’s interpretive take in the concerto was much superior to what it was in the Rhapsody, and would have been a resounding success were it not for a couple of memory lapses, one requiring a reboot and the other from which he happily recovered. Memorization has nothing to do with musicianship—to us it’s a waste of artistic resources for audiences to demand it (or performers to demand it of themselves).
The evening concluded with a set of ever-popular Gershwin melodies in lively Grofé (or Grofé-ish) arrangements that evoked the sound of the ‘20s. We don’t remember all of them, but “The Man I Love” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” were prominent among them. The Palais Royal orchestra was, after all, a dance band, and many in the audience took the opportunity. Krawson, in slinky dress and era-appropriate bejeweled headband, enhanced the atmosphere with Ira Gershwin’s witty and ever-so-literate lyrics and her own soubrette-ish delivery.