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Piano Concerto

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: George Gershwin
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Tzimon Barto, piano, plays Gershwin Jan. 22 - 24, 2011
© Thomas May
A few decades before Bernstein, George Gershwin (1898-1937) was also dividing his creative energy between popular scores for the Broadway musical stage and "serious" compositions for the concert hall that were modeled on the classical tradition. Yet Gershwin, unlike his contemporary Copland (or Bernstein, for that matter), didn't pursue formal training before embarking on his career—though he would later seek guidance from leading composers of the era. His basic sphere when he started out was the "real-world" milieu of commercial entertainment, and Gershwin first became known for his Tin Pan Alley songs.

The phenomenal enthusiasm sparked by Rhapsody in Blue—which the National Symphony programmed on its official Kennedy Inaugural concert—made it a breakthrough not only for the young Gershwin's career but for the larger expectations for an authentically American "classical music." The triumphant premiere of Rhapsody in 1924 proved to the public at large that Gershwin's genius couldn't be confined to the standard format of the popular song. His experimental fusion of vernacular and classical idioms even intrigued artists outside the musical realm. When The Great Gatsby appeared in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald made reference to a fictional "Jazz History of the World" by a Russian-Jewish composer—obviously an alter ego for Gershwin.

The fallout from Rhapsody immediately led to the more-ambitious Concerto in F. Only a day after attending the famous Carnegie Hall concert in which Rhapsody was first heard, Walter Damrosch—conductor of the New York Symphony, soon to merge into the New York Philharmonic—commissioned Gershwin to write a full-fledged piano concerto. But the stakes were now considerably higher for the composer, since he would be inviting direct comparison with works from the venerable European classical tradition.

Even more, Gershwin's incorporation of jazz elements was fresh and provocative, as Joseph Horowitz observes in his richly insightful Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall: "Like jazz, he poked at the fissures of the American experience: the relation between bloodline Anglos, immigrant Jews, and blacks once imported or sold; between high culture borrowed but pure, and a popular culture born of miscegenation. No less than jazz, Gershwin provoked a cacophony of opinion."

And there were plenty of technical issues to confront as well. Gershwin had given his two-piano score of Rhapsody to Ferde Grofé to orchestrate in several versions (the latter's fuller orchestral version is the one we usually hear), but he was determined to remain completely self-reliant for the new Concerto and orchestrated it himself. Descriptions of the Concerto in F routinely conjure the image of the composer studiously burying his nose in "theory books"—an image no doubt teasingly exaggerated by Gershwin.

In any case, what emerged is a remarkably fluent, inventive, and vital debut in a new genre for the composer—a feat he would repeat the following decade with his first large-scale opera, Porgy and Bess. The overall architecture and rhetorical gestures familiar from so many nineteenth-century piano concerts are familiar. Yet Gershwin reimagines this framework, filling it with recognizably American thematic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas.

The Concerto opens with a wink to the Broadway curtain, while the rhythm of the Charleston—"representing the young enthusiastic spirit of American life," said the composer—emerges as a primary motivating force. When the piano enters, it spells out a dreamy melody that hints at the blues poetry to come in the slow second movement. These two ideas, the melody and the dance, are engagingly varied and recombined throughout the movement.

A solo trumpet evokes what Gershwin characterized as the "nocturnal tone" of the Adagio, banked by wistful clarinets. Notice the delicious solo instrumental writing throughout this movement—evidence of the composer's instinctive feel for orchestral color which is often overlooked. The piano's first appearance on the scene, offering a spiced-up rhythmic dissection of the tune, reverses its initial dreamy pose from the first movement.

The principles of contrast used in the first two movements are speeded up in the finale, which also brings back ideas from both, interspersing them with a rapidfire, toccata-like rondo theme. An "orgy of rhythm," as Gershwin put it, this last movement returns to the Bright Lights showiness that opened the Concerto and ends with a delirious series of orchestral trills.

—Thomas May is a frequent contributor to the National Symphony program books. His books include The John Adams Reader and Decoding Wagner (both from Amadeus Press).