SSO – Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a revelation

by | Mar 18, 2023 | Ambassador thoughts, Composer, Orchestras, Piano

Sydney Symphony Orchestra: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; New York Stories

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House 17 March 2023

Conductor: Andrea Molino, Piano: Simon Tedeschi

Firmly rooted in jazz and heavily slanted towards New York in the early 20th century, this popular program was a sell-out and clearly loved by performers and audience alike.

The opening piece was the only non-American piece on the program; Paul Bonetti’s The Bright Day Clarion Calls the Quaking Earth. This work is one of the “50 Fanfares” commissioned from Australian composers by the SSO, with which they like to open many of their concerts. In keeping with the concert’s theme though, it had many jazz and hip-hop elements, so it set the stage well for what was to come. The clarion call here was the trumpet imitating a Pied Currawong and the quaking earth a full orchestral tutti. This was all played with energy and excitement. The Italian conductor Molino was enthusiastically committed to the work.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was a revelation. The famous solo clarinet opening set the tone; playful and sexy, as was the muted brass later in the piece.

Gershwin was immensely successful and became quite rich as a song writer; “Swanee” recorded by Al Jolson netted $10,000 in the first year. But he wanted to be taken seriously as a classical composer. He wrote many major works in his short life, but Rhapsody in Blue, written in 1924, was an early success. In many ways it is like a classical concerto; it has a piano as a solo instrument and has the fast-slow-fast structure. He wrote many other major works, though he is now mostly remembered for the tone poem “An American in Paris” and the opera “Porgy and Bess”.

He is said to have conceived “Rhapsody” on a train trip from NY to Boston and one can hear the clickety-clack of wheels on the track pulsing through the work. The jazz is however not of the deep-south variety; it is born of metropolitan New York. Sophisticated and swanky. The piano part often has a ragtime feel, but on the Steinway it is anything but honky-tonk. Tedeschi played passionately without swagger or exaggeration, but with humour, grace and style.

The performance had all the ease and playfulness inherent in this composition, yet was full of thrilling energy. Gershwin would have been chuffed to think that his work was being performed a hundred years later to a packed audience on the other side of the world with hardly an American in sight!

Charles Ives grew up a musician but became an insurance salesman to liberate himself from the pressures of having to earn a living from music.  This totally freed him to compose exactly what he wanted without constraint. He often combined very disparate elements in his works and Central Park in the Dark which was written in 1906, is no exception. The piece is scored for winds, percussion, two pianos and strings. The music is quite programmatic. The silence in the park on a balmy summer night is portrayed throughout by a light blanket of atonal sotto voce strings. Quite sparse but decidedly tonal snippets appear in the other instruments to represent things or people who momentarily disturb the tranquility. A fire engine, a horse, a band of musicians. Often the strings are completely drowned out; they do not rise to the dynamics of the disruptors, they just re-emerge when the extraneous noise ceases. Molino, instead of using the podium, stood behind the strings to conduct the wind and percussion. It is interesting that Ives chooses the atonal for the tranquility and tonal for the disruptions. The other way around would seem more intuitive. Nonetheless, it was impressively engaging both as a composition and a performance. It finished as quietly as it started.

Leonard Bernstein’s immensely successful musical “West Side Story” came out in 1957 and was heavily influenced by both jazz and Central American music. This is in many ways music of America’s heyday; victorious, afloat with money, filled with confidence and self assurance and no longer looking to a Europe which was still recovering from two world wars. Bernstein, as a composer and conductor of the NY Philharmonic was at its musical epicentre.

He composed the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story in 1961. With music as well known as this, one can be reduced to playing “spot the tune”. In a sense it comes with baggage, like being jurors in a high profile trial who have had too much exposure to the media to be objective.  There is little chance of allowing a composition such as this to be judged on its own merits.  For example, the orchestral realisation of the song There’s a place for us has little musical meaning unless you are running the words in your head. Not to criticise the performers, this comes across as merely sentimental. By strong contrast however, sections based on the more rambunctious music (like Rumble) were highly energetic and musically totally engaging.

I have been attending Sydney Symphony Orchestra concerts since the 1970s and this is a good opportunity to take stock. I am so impressed how the orchestra has grown in skill, dedication and consistent razor sharp focus of the musicians. There are other orchestras in the world to whom these plaudits apply, Berlin, Vienna, New York, London to name a few, but what sets the SSO aside is that one can almost feel them dancing in their seats with excitement. And they have a light-heartedness and palpable sense of fun. There is something quintessentially Australian about this, but it is decidedly not the easygoing “she’ll be right mate” larrikin stereotype. Here we have a group of elite musicians who dedicate their lives to the complex process of mastering an instrument to the highest standard, not for personal glory, but to contribute to a symphonic whole; the sum being so much more than its parts. This is an Australian spirit of which we can be truly proud.

I had some trepidation about coming to a concert with such well worn pieces as the Rhapsody and West Side Story, but the vigour that the SSO brought to this jazz inspired program made it an absolute joy to experience. There were many school groups in the audience and they were clearly wrapped through the entire concert. A great tribute to the performers indeed.

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About The Author

Daniel Kaan

Daniel is a keen concert goer, and especially loves opera, early and contemporary music. He has worked as a high school music teacher and performed as soloist in many operas. Sacred choral music is also a specialty and in 2022 he performed in the Thomaskirsche at the Leipzig Bach Festival. He studied music at Sydney Uni, has an AMusA and LTCL in voice and a Master of Cognitive Science specialising in the musical functioning of the brain. He is currently studying pipe organ.

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