A complete performance of Concerto in F for piano by George Gershwin, performed here by Marc-André Hamelin with the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin.
This is one of those more classical/less jazzy performances of the work, which I actually quite like – I went so far as purchasing the score and trying to get to grips with the piano part back in my Cambridge days, when I had regular access to a Steinway model B and D.
While the Tin Pan Alley heritage of the work is important, one can sometimes make it swing too much, I think, and many modern performances seek to emphasise the jazz aspect over the work’s classical structure and elements. Such performances overlook the fact that Gershwin wrote the concerto in part to burnish his credentials as a “serious” composer rather than a mere songwriter, going so far as to take lessons in orchestration rather than relying on Ferde Grofé to translate from a two-piano version (as he did for Rhapsody in Blue).
The Concerto in F was a more ambitious project than the Rhapsody and took the composer several months to complete. The work was given a trial performance before its formal premiere in 1925 by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Aeolian Hall, with Gershwin at the piano. The critic Samuel Chotzinoff wrote “Of all those writing the music of today…he alone actually expressed us.” Like the Rhapsody, the Concerto also uses sharp contrasts but its integration through cyclic form and thematic transformation reflect Gershwin’s study of 19th century techniques. More than the earlier Rhapsody, the Concerto forms a convincing whole, the impact of which derives as much from its entire structure as from its separate parts.
The exposition of the opening Allegro of the F major Concerto is a perfect example of the perception of sonata form. The components of the second lyrical theme recall the 18th century and is made up of a series of of ideas rather than a single theme. Gershwin varies these ideas with great resource and creativity, restating them and extending them into new shapes throughout the duration of the Concerto. These consist of three motifs: a wind and percussion fanfare, a Charleston melody and a dotted arpeggiated figure. These themes are expanded almost immediately, are filled with contrast, and no portion is thematically irrelevant. The development returns to F major and the Charleston motif, which eventually becomes its own subject in a miniature Moderato cantabile. The recapitulation is introduced unambiguously with a reprise of the second theme and closes with a quodlibet that made up the first theme. As in conventional sonata form, the two main themes are now stated in the tonic in a transposition that is formed by adding the subdominant to itself.
The Adagio second movement is a song form set as a rondo in A-B-A-C-A. In the context of faint praise, in the New York Times review of the first performance, Olin Downes managed to cite the refrain theme, “a stopped trumpet playing a ‘blue’ melody against a sensuous harmonic background,” as being “perhaps the best part of the concerto.” The lush melodies of the Adagio, paired with the lilting rhythm of the strings illustrate both similarities to the Rhapsody in Blue, yet still exhibit progressive composition not seen until Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
The connection between the Adagio and the Finale, marked Allegro agitato is very strong. Within this Finale, the composer shows us a rondo form from a more rhythmic point of view. In its form of an almost-classic rondo, the orchestra opens with a furious theme in G minor. Without any indication of modulation, the piano enters on F, initiating the second statement of the rondo refrain, now its home key. Gershwin employs the highly regarded “new” American technique of a dazzling stretto with bursts of technical wizardry before returning to the rondo of the second movement. The Finale reintroduces the initial theme to form its own climax before closing on a brief coda.
My favourite studio recording of this work remains the André Previn / LSO recording featuring then-principal trumpet Howard Snell in the second movement – again, a performance that I would consider more toward the classical end of the spectrum, despite Previn’s proficiency in jazz. The LSO brass were on their usual top form throughout this excellent recording, though some of the percussion is unfortunately drowned out at times.
The late Leonard Bernstein, whose 98th birthday would have been today, conducting Candide Overture from a concert performance of Candide with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, recorded in December 1989.
This performance took place just a few short years before I started the first of many pilgrimages to the Barbican Centre to see the LSO perform. Many faces in the orchestra, some sadly now departed, are familiar to me.
Leonard Bernstein is one of my heroes – an exuberant man brimming over with talent and energy, someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and who got on and did it: making music in all its glorious forms.
The project, Addicts’ Symphony, was the brainchild of the composer and musician James McConnel, whose 18-year-old son Freddy, an aspiring and talented musician, died of a heroin overdose in 2011 at the age of 18. James, himself a recovering alcoholic, was inspired to create the project by a determination to save others like Freddy from a similar fate, and a firm belief in the transformative power of music.
After a summer of recruitment, the ten participants came together for the first time at the beginning of October 2013. Led by workshop leader and composer Paul Rissmann and supported by LSO members Bindi McFarlane (violin) and Matthew Gibson (double bass), the group were reunited with their instruments; some having not played for 20 years, and some just beginning. All they were told at this point was that they needed to put together a performance.
This topic is of particular interest to me for a number of reasons. For a number of years I was a Patron of the London Symphony Orchestra, making financial contributions to support the orchestra’s work and subsidise the price of tickets so that other people from poorer backgrounds such as myself could experience the transformative, life-changing power of classical music.
But what I didn’t realise then was that I was to have personal experience of the ravages of addiction. I remember hearing discussion of a certain musician, an accomplished professional instrumentalist who played with some of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, who exhibited alcoholic behaviour and drank to manage and suppress terrible stage fright – a theme that is explored in the Addicts’ Symphony documentary. But I never for a moment thought that I would one day exhibit many of these same behaviours myself.
My experiences of addiction, treatment and recovery probably merit a blog post, if not a book, of their own. And I will leave that topic for another day, except to say that despite not being a professional musician, my career outside of journalism is similarly high-stress, and that music was a key part of my recovery as it has always been a fundamental part of my life. The healing, restorative power of music is well known, and music therapy was very much a part of my own personal treatment plan.
The Addicts’ Symphony documentary should be one to watch because it addresses an area that is often overlooked by pundits and policymakers when discussing our approach to addressing and treating addiction. Much of the current focus is on treatment among the economically disadvantaged, or the underclass – and after many years of denial, some progress is finally being made in this area. But little attention has been paid to the havoc that can be caused by addiction in people with high-stress and often high-profile careers, such as the world of top-flight classical music.
As I can now personally attest having been through the mill myself, and an official “service user” of some of the patchwork of addiction recovery services available in Britain, many of the treatments and options available are simply not calibrated to people from different backgrounds – say those with more advanced educational qualifications, professional careers, many of the middle class obligations (such as mortgage payments and other financial obligations) and a lack of offending behaviour.
That is not to say that all treatments on offer are inadequate – far from it. Indeed, I was personally brought back from the brink by taxpayer-funded services that were, for the most part, excellent. And yet there were many areas where my particular needs and circumstances diverged almost completely from those of my fellow service users, forcing me to improvise and strike out on my own without the safety net provided to others.
I will expand on these ideas following the screening of the documentary, but it is already clear that Addicts’ Symphony is an important contribution to the discussion about addiction in high-functioning people with high-stress careers.
To admit [my addiction] publicly may amount to professional suicide. However, I’m frustrated with the classical-music profession and the fact that stage fright is still a touchy subject, despite the huge pressures on musicians. My story is not unique. Many classical musicians struggle alone, masking their nerves with beta blockers and alcohol, ashamed, as I was. For some reason, it is more acceptable to admit frailty in the world of rock and pop.
All the way through filming, I was aware that my taking part might help someone like me feel less alone. I trusted the integrity of the documentary’s director, Dollan Cannell, from the moment I met him, and I knew I would have more strength to tackle my specific fear of orchestral playing in the company of the other addicts involved in the programme.
Together we composed our piece, Rhapsody of the Tamed, and performed it with pride with the London Symphony Orchestra last November. It was both heartbreaking and empowering to play a concert with the LSO and admit that I was full of fear. I didn’t have to deny or medicate my feelings. For once I could be honest and, in the process, the shame I’d had about myself began to lift. It hasn’t returned since the night of the concert.
It is wonderful to hear the story of someone who experienced the darkness of addiction and not only came out the other side, but was able – with help – to re-engage with the very profession that had been such a source of stress and a trigger for her personal issues. But outside the meeting rooms of twelve-step fellowships, such stories are currently too few and far between.
Not everyone recovering from addiction is able to take a permanent sabbatical from the sources of their stress and anxiety once they leave treatment – though this is always strongly recommended by many treatment providers as the best choice for a successful long-term recovery. Many have families and other obligations which demand that they re-engage with the world more or less on the world’s terms and at it’s pace rather than their own. And here, finally, is a documentary that – among other goals – points to a possible way forward, at least for one specific high-pressure career.
Never one to turn down an opportunity to listen to the London Symphony Orchestra in action, Semi-Partisan Sam will be watching Addicts’ Symphony tonight with great interest.
Music and politics make uneasy bedfellows, and this timeless truth has only been reconfirmed with the continuing tumult and unrest in Ukraine.
Russia, the protagonist in this latest crisis, provides ample recent evidence that politics and music are best kept apart. The punk band Pussy Riot, for example, is hardly ever out of the headlines in recent months, with members being jailed, released,threatened and attackedby the authorities merely for adding their voices to the civic discourse, for wanting to make themselves and their beliefs heard.
But at the other end of the artistic spectrum, for the fine arts – especially classical music – the problem is not the Russian government’s persecution of artists, but artists’ apparent eagerness to praise the political leadership and to lend President Vladimir Putin their credibility.
The most famous current case is the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev was one of the most prominent Russian artists to sign anopen letter in support of Vlarimir Putin’s foreign policytowards Ukraine. Part of the letter’s text reads:
In the days when the fate of our compatriots in the Crimea is decided, Russian cultural figures can not be indifferent observers with a cold heart . Our common history, our cultural roots and spiritual origins , our fundamental values and language have united us forever. We want to see the commonality of our peoples and our cultures have a strong future. That is why we firmly reiterate support for the position of President of the Russian Federation and Ukraine Crimea.
Sometimes, these messages of support for Vladimir Putin’s policy of aggression are downright perplexing, such as when theRussian Writer’s Union decided to make their love and support for Putin known in a very Soviet style open letter, a sloppy wet kiss to power. Craven though they can sometimes be, one can hardly imagine the British or American press joining together as one to praise and defend the Cameron or Obama foreign policies.
At other times, however, particularly in the case of artists responsible for institutions that depend on government support, the situation is not so clear-cut and such acts of public sycophancy may be part of the inevitable cost of doing business. The Financial Timespicks up on this point:
There is little doubt [Gergiev’s] position is compromised. Deep down he is a nationalist, as his ill-judged support for the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 demonstrated. At his two Mariinsky theatres in St Petersburg, he has 3,000 employees on his payroll and a rich tradition to maintain. No other figure could raise the kind of money that Gergiev does to keep the Mariinsky going. Much of that money comes from members of the Putin circle. If Gergiev is presented with a petition in support of government policy, he is obliged to sign – unlike prominent freelance musicians such as Denis Matsuev and Yuri Bashmet, who have foolishly toed the line.
The aftermath was not pleasant, and it is a brave person who now does what the Dixie Chicks did – and this was in the United States, where the rule of law still means something. One can only imagine what might befall the likes of Gergiev if they actively spoke out against their government, when even maintaining a diplomatic silence would invite negative repercussions.
But of course Valery Gergiev would not speak out against Vladimir Putin’s policy of bullying and undermining Ukraine; he actively supports it, his signature to the open letter was enthusiastically given. So the question then becomes one of whether artists with differing political or world views should continue to be welcomed in foreign concert halls, or be else ostracised and made artistic pariahs?
A significant weight of critical opinion seems to be coming down on the side of ostracisation and intolerance. Prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has already made headlines by protesting Valery Gergiev’s continued association with a top-flight British artistic institution, going so far as tohijack the opening night of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Berlioz season in November 2013 and later issuing an open letter to the LSO, effectively demanding Gergiev’s dismissal. The letter concludes:
It is our view that Mr Gergiev’s current position is untenable and he should be suspended with immediate effect until he officially withdraws his name from the list published on the Russian Culture Ministry’s website and fully explains his position on the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Bill.
If he decides he is not prepared to do this, his employment should be terminated as he is not an appropriate person to be in receipt of UK public funding. He supports discriminatory legislation which goes against the UK values of equality and diversity, and he supports Russian military action which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned.
Ironically, the open letter sent by the Peter Tatchell Foundation and the Ukrainian Institute uses the same basis of government-policy-as-justification that we see in the Russian Ministry of Culture’s letter of support from Russian artists. Tatchell’s letter demands that Gergiev be fired because he supports a policy “which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned”. Does this then mean that any artist or artistic institution not in complete accordance with the current views of the British government should be denied funding and actively picketed?
As is so often the case with campaigners from the political left, it is never enough to let the people vote with their feet on matters of moral principle. Rather, they instinctively turn to the government to invoke its power to make people fall into line. If it transpired that Valery Gergiev was jetting off between concerts to personally help foment unrest in eastern Ukrainian cities, people would be outraged and his situation would immediately become untenable. But he has not, and would never do this. Ultimately, Gergiev is guilty of little more than supporting the overwhelming view – however wrong it may be – among his own countrymen, something that most of us would likely do ourselves.
The Washington Post alsopicks up on this point, noting that famous Soviet artists were welcomed when they performed in the West even at the height of the Cold War, at a time when diplomatic relations were far more precarious than they are now:
If a musician chooses not to take a stand, he or she is often automatically charged with collaboration in any case. Gergiev, through his support of a challenging regime, may have in some sense “deserved” the protests at some of his concerts in 2013 (though this was not a reaction many Soviet artists got when they performed in the West at the height of the Cold War, sent by an even more suspect government).
For those in the West who watch Russia’s bullying and takeover of parts of Ukraine with mounting concern and anger, it may well provide a moment of catharsis and sweet justice to send the likes of Valery Gergiev packing prematurely from the London Symphony Orchestra, and to see other prominent Russian artists who do not disavow their country similarly exiled.
But it is precisely at times like these – when passions are high and tempers flared – that humanity most needs to remain in touch with the few common threads that unite us all. Music is perhaps the most precious of these unifying threads. After all, while the West may have a legitimate quarrel with the Russian government, the Russian people are largely innocent, as much victims of Putin’s repressive regime as the people of Ukraine and Crimea.
And even when prominent artists such as Valery Gergiev weigh in on the “wrong” side of an international dispute or a political debate, how can it be right to sever an important international cultural tie, a key reminder (to quote John F. Kennedy) that whatever our many differences, “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal”?
In the end, it was Valery Gergiev together with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus who answered the conundrum most eloquently, with theirrecent concert performanceof Alexander Scriabin’s First Symphony, part of Gergiev’s ongoing promotion of the Russian classical repertoire and a concert attended by Semi-Partisan Sam.
Sitting in London’s iconic Barbican concert hall, the rich sound of the LSO’s strings and peerless brass section enveloping the audience as the symphony drew toward its noble conclusion, hearing the chorus intone “Slava isskustvu vo veki slava!” – Britain’s finest musicians conducted by a Russian maestro – it hit home that if anything is truly transcendental, if anything must be held sacred and kept apart from our cynical, self-serving and sometimes hypocritical geopolitics, it should be music.
From the text of the choral finale to Scriabin’s first symphony, in praise of art’s unifying gift to humanity:
You are an exalted vision of life, you are celebration, you are peace, you bring your enchanted visions as a gift to humankind. In those cold, dark moments when our souls are troubled, mankind can discover in you life’s joys, consolation and forgetfulness.
Gather here, all nations of the earth, let us sing the praises of art! Glory, eternal glory to art!
More onScriabin‘s first symphonyhere. More on the London Symphony Orchestrahere.