Kevin Rhodes, for ten years the principal conductor of the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, projects joy and excitement in every sentence he utters. His orchestra’s 42nd season opener, “The Art of Jazz,” jives by at the First Baptist Church in Newton this Saturday in company with a group of important 20th-century jazz-based works. Rhodes has inked himself for the solo spot in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
“I first came to Rhapsody in Blue as a young child. “My parents owned and ran a 24-hour trucker diner in southern Indiana where I grew up, so (what they knew of the) piano came from the man who serviced the pinball machines and the jukebox. For them, my learning Rhapsody in Blue was something to which they could relate and kept saying to my teacher, ‘I want him to learn that piece.’ ”
“When I finally heard a recording of Rhapsody in its symphonic formalwear, so to speak, I was surprised because it didn’t sound as much like Joplin as I had imagined. Many years later I discovered a recording of Gershwin’s piano roll of it in the Paul Whiteman version we’ll be doing with Pro Arte. Now THAT was the ragtime feel I was dreaming of. I don’t base my own performance on the idea of a recreation of Gershwin’s exact performance, but I have always tried to inhabit that somewhat carefree, or devil-may-care attitude of musicians hanging out jamming on a piece together, rather than trying to re-sculpt something we did in rehearsal without coloring outside the lines.
“The upcoming concert shaped itself once the players made the decision to play Rhapsody. We chose several other works outside the usual scope of a traditional symphony or chamber orchestra to combine instruments and have a relationship to jazz and other popular idioms. On this side of the Atlantic we have Copland’s Music for the Theater written just one year later than Rhapsody in 1925, which definitely pulls on jazz and ragtime influences as well as some Burlesque style music in addition to Copland’s traditional slower music and incredibly beautiful way of putting together lyrical music. Europe was of course terribly fascinated by ragtime and jazz and Milhaud’s 1922-23 Création du Monde predates Gershwin’s work by a few years. It’s particularly noteworthy that it predates his masterpiece American in Paris by 6 years, even though when listening to it one imagines it’s Milhaud imitating Gershwin!
“And then for a European perspective, we’ll play Kurt Weill’s decadently jazzy Threepenny Opera from 1928. Deliberately avoiding the word suite, Weill intended to create basically a set of orchestra-alone highlights of the songs that would be in his own words ‘a snappy closer.’ We won’t end with it, but it does remain snappy I think! To modern listeners, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the influence of this piece on Kander and Ebb’s classic musical “Cabaret” which takes place just a few years after the period in which Weill and Brecht wrote theirs. It isn’t the freewheeling jazz of America or the ‘sophistiqué’ jazz of France, but rather in my opinion, the somewhat more war weary, controlled and maybe even slightly forcedly light world of between the wars Germany.”
The Pro Arte, which, Rhodes notes “is unique in the orchestra world in that the orchestra members themselves make all of the decisions as a group,” gets him fired up. He finds the collaborative approach exciting, as the players “decide what pieces will actually be played and who will conduct.”
Rhodes’s path to the conducting trade began when he became the rehearsal pianist for his grade school’s chorus, quickly moving on to fill that role for school productions in musical comedy and other events. Before he knew it, he was conducting these productions during rehearsals. By the time he was around 11 Rhodes was “touring with a local kiddie performer group.” And “gigging all over town.” His first professional “job” happened because the conductor was ill, and Kevin realized, “hey, I can do this!” Once launched, nearly four decades ago, Rhodes soon was conducting ballet orchestras, then opera and classical ensembles. His varied path has wrought versatility.
Rhodes’s pianistic career has paralleled his conducting accomplishments; an occasional soloist, he tried almost every musical genre, ultimately obtaining his bachelor’s in piano performance from Michigan State. Since graduating, 30 years ago, Rhodes has worked in Europe, the US and pretty much every corner of the globe. This is his 19th season both as Music Director of the Springfield (MA) Symphony Orchestra and the Traverse Symphony Orchestra (MI), and he has conducted over 50 orchestras in 16 nations
Pro Arte Orchestra’s “The Art of Jazz,”
First Baptist Church in Newton
(848 Beacon St, Newton Centre) at 8:00
Milhaud: La Creation du Monde
Copland: Music for the Theater
Weil: Kleine Dreigroschenmusik
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue