The Rhapsody Project Notes on the Performances

Notes on the Performances: Hyperion Knight

As George Gershwin relaxed with a game of pool at the Ambassador Billiard Parlor on Broadway in January 1924, his brother Ira browsed through the New York Tribune. Ira's attention was captured suddenly when he read "George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto"—and the advertised premiere was scheduled for February. As it turned out, George was just as surprised by the announcement as his brother. He had discussed the possibility of writing a "serious" concerto utilizing jazz idioms for a Paul Whiteman concert, but the budding composer had no idea that Whiteman had already booked Aeolian Hall for his jazz "experiment." The 25-year-old Gershwin's dream of incorporating American popular musical idioms into works for the concert hall was about to come true—but he had less than a month to prepare. The concert that was to launch Rhapsody in Blue and its composer to international fame found Whiteman conducting from a score full of blank pages, with such written indications from Gershwin as "Wait for nod."

While Gershwin's songwriting was already known for its use of jazz syncopations and "blue" notes, the Aeolian Hall concert furnished audiences with another element of jazz, that of improvisation—an element that had been largely missing from "serious" concert halls since the time of Liszt. In addition to Gershwin's "rhapsodizing" at the keyboard, the clarinetist improvised his own cadenza at the opening, to stunning effect. Gershwin would soon have a standardized score of the Rhapsody to present to his admiring public, but the debut concert held the secret to the enduring success of Gershwin's music with both classical and popular musicians.

The classical performer, scrupulously trained to observe the composer's printed score (an often regrettable state of affairs), can flirt with lighter music while re-creating the era of Gershwin's short life (1898-1937). The popular or jazz musician, on the other hand, can manipulate the raw materials of Gershwin's inspiration to fit the mood, the prevailing style, and the performer's own personality. Each approach has its appeal, but we have many "authentic" accounts on record already (including performances by Gershwin himself, as well as by his compatriot Oscar Levant and Gershwin's sister Frances), and most of these certainly demonstrate far more freedom than is indicated in the text of the music. For me, the individual touch of the performer is essential, and the ongoing evolution of jazz brings with it new and exciting insights into Gershwin's immortal tunes and concert works.

For this recording, jazz composer-pianist Joe Cea has provided new arrangements for piano and chamber orchestra of both Rhapsody in Blue and the Three Preludes. While the Preludes are usually heard in their original form for piano solo, Rhapsody in Blue has appeared in many forms since its original inception for jazz band by Ferde Grofé. While maintaining many of the felicities of the standard Grofé orchestration, the new version by Joe Cea adds the exotic sonority of the marimba, giving the Rhapsody a touch of nightclub atmosphere. The instrumentalists were encouraged to exercise their imaginations in their respective solos, and the opening clarinet solo in particular is truly a cadenza, flirting with swing rhythm and played like a fantasy.

For all its whimsy, however, Rhapsody in Blue is still primarily a piece about the rhythmic energy of a youthful America. Gershwin portrayed it as a sort of tone poem about New York life: "In the Rhapsody I tried to express our manner of living, the tempo of our modern life with its speed and chaos and vitality." The Three Preludes were originally intended for an eventual set of 24 Preludes modeled on Chopin's magnum opus, a project Gershwin did not live to complete. Cea's orchestrations remain close to Gershwin's original conception, but are enlivened with bluesy instrumentation, particularly in the Second Prelude (reminiscent of the muted trumpet solo in Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F Major, for which this melody may originally have been conceived). The First and Third Preludes are energized with saucy cross-rhythms between the instruments, taking a cue from Gershwin himself: "The rhythms of American popular music are more or less brittle; they should be made to snap, and at times to crackle."

The art of transcribing Gershwin songs for solo piano is represented on this recording by two very different approaches. Concert pianist Earl Wild's style is that of the 19th-century virtuoso, serving the songs up for pianistic display as well as clever manipulations of the thematic material. Wild's transcriptions are clearly designed for the concert hall, making use of modern classical composition techniques and playable only by the most dedicated concert pianists. The transcriptions I worked out with Joe Cea, on the other hand, are modeled on jazz improvisations, and would be equally at home in a cocktail lounge or concert hall.