Musings: SLSO presents the essence of American classical music
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2010 - The St. Louis Symphony has a serious claim staked in music with roots in our American soil, both in terms of presenting the music of recognized composers and in commissioning new works. Leonard Slatkin, for example, in his long tenure as music director in St. Louis, made the music of our country a personal cause and conducted the orchestra in live performances of the music of Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, David Del Tredici, John Corigliano and others. In doing so and in recording compositions by many Americans, Slatkin - scion of American musical aristocrats -- gave the orchestral music of his native land a booster shot of legitimacy.
David Robertson, the current music director, continues that tradition, and clear and ringing evidence of it can be seen in this coming weekend's program. It is red, white and very, very blue from beginning to end, with music by Copland and Charles Ives bookending a landmark classic by one of America's most enduringly popular artists, George Gershwin. He is represented by a piece so beloved I'll bet you can hum it right now without a bit of trouble. It is "Rhapsody in Blue," and the glamorous Jerusalem-born American virtuoso Orli Shaham will perform it with the orchestra.
Shaham, who is married to Maestro Robertson, recently brought home appreciative notices and international attention when she not only played but conducted, from the piano, the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K.488, in Sydney. Her repertory ranges literally from "A" for John Adams to Z, as in Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. She, in 1983, became the first woman to claim the Pulitzer Prize for music.
Jazz-band leader Paul Whiteman commissioned "Rhapsody in Blue" from Gershwin for his Experiment in Modern Music. Whiteman was eager to move jazz from what was then regarded as popular music into a more serious realm, and "Rhapsody in Blue" was intended to advance the cause.
The premiere was at Aeolian Hall in New York in 1924. Whiteman conducted; Gershwin played. Although reviews were mixed, the one that mattered - the review in the New York Times by Olin Downes -- gave it a serious thumbs up, the thumbs-up with which everyone else had to reckon.
In "The George Gershwin Reader," Robert Wyatt and John Andrew Johnson call Downes' review "the single most important review of the (Aeolian Hall) concert," and described his remarks as both thorough and even-handed. Downes took the piece apart and put it back together again in erudite fashion, and in conclusion said there was a "realization of the irresistible vitality and genuineness of much of the music heard on this occasion. ... The audience packed a house that could have been sold out twice over." (Check out this YouTube presentation of Gershwin and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra playing the composition in 1927.)
The popularity of "Rhapsody in Blue" endures. From the beginning, with its amazing glissando played on the clarinet, it evokes pictures of American urbanity and sophistication. But just as important, this music is siren-like, exhibiting the special quality of aesthetical seduction, drawing in listeners who have not been initiated into the special fellowship of classical music aficionados. For me anyway, "Rhapsody in Blue" was one of several works of art that eased me into an appreciation of orchestral music, one that is genuinely enduring. I assume that I'm not so different from a vast audience that finds in serious music qualities that are deeply and ineffably satisfying, if not transporting.
One character in our history bitten by the Rhapsody bug is a central figure in a new HBO series, "Boardwalk Empire." He is a central figure as well in the history of American racketeering: Alphonse Gabriel Capone.
In 1927, or so the story goes, Al Capone threw a huge party and hired an orchestra to play. During the evening, he asked if he might conduct the orchestra in playing his favorite "tune," "Rhapsody in Blue." No bandleader interested in keeping his baton moving would refuse such a request. After Capone finished his performance, the mobster turned to the audience. Tears, audience members noticed, filled his eyes. Or so the story goes.
In any event, history and legend orbit around Gershwin's enduring masterpiece, and because of its various endowments, historic and artistic, we return to it time and again and are rarely disappointed.
But there's more melomanical patriotism offered at Powell Hall as part of the American Arts Experience - the St. Louis festival going on now. Along with "Rhapsody in Blue" David Robertson will conduct two American classics on Friday evening and Sunday afternoon: Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2.
In 1942, Martha Graham commissioned Aaron Copland to produce a ballet score, and his familiar "Appalachian Spring" was the result. The subtle and indelibly indigenous qualities of "Appalachian Spring" are revealed in the opening sequence. Composer Robert Kapilow told National Public Radio, "The effect is like a flowering at dawn, as Copland creates the perfect setting for the ballet's primary characters, two young newlyweds on the western Pennsylvania frontier." Later, Copland reworked the score as an orchestral suite, which is what we will hear this weekend. Copland received the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for this music.
If Copland painted America in rather subtle but nonetheless affecting musical watercolor, Symphony No. 2 from the titanic genius Charles Ives proclaims the glories of our land in the sonorous and deeply affecting tapestry that is this five-movement work. Ives, a New Englander, began the symphony while still a student at Yale, and more than a decade passed before it could be called complete.
In his Program Notes for this week's Symphony program book, Paul Schiavo writes, "As did so many of Ives' major compositions, the Symphony No. 2 languished unheard for many years before receiving a performance. It was not until 1951 that the piece finally had its premiere, when the New York Philharmonic Orchestra played it under the young Leonard Bernstein.
"Ives, then in fragile health and having long ago turned his back on the musical establishment represented by major orchestras, declined the conductor's invitation to attend the performance. But he listened to a radio rebroadcast of the concert two weeks later at the home of friends in Connecticut.
"After it was over," one of his hosts recalled, "I'm sure he was very much moved. He stood up, walked over to the fireplace, and spat! And then he walked out into the kitchen. Not a word. And he never said anything about it. I think he was pleased, but he was silent."