Wednesday, June 9, 2010

In review--Fly the Friendly Gershwin Skies

Gershwin by Grofè
Lincoln Mayorga/Al Gallodoro/Harmony Ensemble
Conductor Steven Richman
Harmonia Mundi

The Pacific Northwest sky opens up and rain falls like shards of glass onto the deck outside my window while a small creek forms in the garden. As this is happening, I’m listening to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and the rain has decided to join the percussion section of the orchestra. And if I forget that summer is only two weeks away, this disc, Gershwin by Grofè also features Summertime, originally composed for Gershwin’s jazz opera, Porgy and Bess. But if you’re like me, you’ve heard many versions of this jazz classic.

Many people know George Gershwin’s music from watching classical Hollywood musicals, and in fact, I just watched the DVD of Funny Face featuring Gershwin’s Hollywood movie songs. But what some people don’t know is that Gershwin also composed classical music and built a bridge between the new African-American jazz of the turn-of-the-last century with European classical orchestral arrangements, ie: Rhapsody in Blue. However, the version that appears on Gershwin by Grofè features the jazz arrangement with the lead clarinet marrying a bit of Klezmer with early American blues.

While Gershwin was instrumental in marrying American jazz with European classical, he was joined by Paul Whitman and Ferde Grofè on this formidable task. The risky musical venture also took place during a time when African-American music was still not fully accepted by white America and jazz was most like not taken seriously by classical music composers (except for the French Impressionist composer Maurice Ravel, a fan of Gershwin). Gershwin also would have carried the extra baggage of a Hollywood movie composer, a relatively new medium at that time in history.

This is not the first jazz interpretation I’ve heard of Rhapsody in Blue. Caribbean-American composer and Latin-jazz pianist Michel Camilo partnered with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra on his disc, Rhapsody in Blue (Telarc), which also fell on the bluesy side despite the full orchestra sound. And the liner notes on that disc also delve into the fascinating relationship between Whiteman, Grofè and Gershwin; their contributions to American music.

Gershwin by Grofè features the Hollywood songs such as I Got Rhythm, Sweet and Low-down, The Man I Love, and some of the songs can be heard as both archival recordings and as new versions performed by Harmonie Ensemble, Lincoln Mayorga (piano) and Al Gallodoro on reeds, conducted by Steven Richman, as mentioned earlier in the review.

The uplifting music kept me in a spirited mood despite the recent rainstorm and the liner notes educated me about music of the early 20th century.  This must have been an exciting time for American composers and any group of musicians forging a new musical identity without the knowledge that in the future, someone would be listening to their music on a CD while typing a review on a laptop computer which with a click of a button can be read by the entire world via the Internet. Still even with all this technology at my fingertips, I would love to travel back in time and hear Gershwin’s music live and experienced the emergence of all that new music.

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