Music For The Day

The spirit of New York City, in three movements

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).

As Ileen Zovluck writes in describing the work:

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.

For a more jazz-leaning performance, the New York Philharmonic’s season-opening concert this year, with Aaron Diehl at the piano and live-streamed on Facebook, was an excellent and equally enjoyable example.

 

george-gershwin-piano-concerto-in-f-american-airlines-aa-md-80-samuel-hooper

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Advertisements

Music For The Day

Thank you for the music

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.

A rich life truly lived, and an unparalleled contribution made to American music, including some of the 20th century’s most achingly beautiful.

Happy birthday, Maestro.

 

Leonard Bernstein

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Happy Easter – He Is Risen

A very happy and blessed Easter to all of my Christian readers

Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, Hallelujah!

The Kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah!

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah! REVELATION 19.6, 11.5, 19.6

Hallelujah Chorus, Messiah by Georg Friedrich Händel, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Tenebrae Choir under the baton of Sir Colin Davis.

A brief and entertaining history of Handel’s Messiah is here.

 

He is Risen - Happy Easter

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

One To Watch: Addicts’ Symphony

Rachael Lander

 

Tonight at 11PM UK Time, Channel 4 will screen the documentary Addicts’ Symphony.

The documentary showcases a project that took place last year, a collaboration between Big Mountain Productions and the London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO Discovery programme, to explore ways that music could help recovering addicts with prior musical experience.

From the LSO Discovery blog:

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.

From the testimony of Rachael Lander, one of the participants in Addicts’ Symphony and a recovering alcoholic herself:

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.

 

Cover Image: Cellist Rachael Lander, “Addiction in the orchestra: classical music’s drink and drugs problem“, The Guardian

Music For The Day

A beautiful arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River”, which forms the finale of the cantata / secular oratorio “A Child Of Our Time” by British composer Michael Tippett. Performed here in my favourite recording of this piece, given by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Richard Hickox:

 

And from the same work, Tippett’s arrangement of “Steal Away”:

 

More about Tippett’s “A Child Of Our Time” can be read here.