Asked to pick the quintessential “New York” work, many music lovers would name Rhapsody in Blue (1924) by George Gershwin (1898-1937). Tonight’s piano soloist, Orion Weiss, has an image of the piece that certainly matches that reputation. “I always like to imagine Gershwin and the Marx Brothers and Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table,” he says, “all these amazing, hilarious and creative people hanging out together at the same time.” In his eyes, the Marx Brothers movies have a wild ‘New York Spirit’. “They are unpredictable, and they have everything: touching moments, love songs, all kinds of crazy energy and wildness.”
And we find “the same manic energy and aesthetic variety” in Gershwin’s masterpiece as well. “There’s this piling on of everything,” Orion continues. “There are all these characters that seem to tumble on top of each other. Tunes follow one another—but while they’re related, the Rhapsody doesn’t necessarily develop like a sonata form.” Perhaps because of this outward anarchy—coupled with the enduring memorability of his melodies—it’s easy to condescend to Gershwin, to take bits and piece of the Rhapsody, for instance, for commercial backgrounds. Orion is insistent, however, that we shouldn’t treat Gershwin as some unsophisticated composer who worked purely by intuition. He points, for instance, to the way that Gershwin’s “stream of consciousness” technique in the Rhapsody looks back to similar procedures in the music of Schumann. More important, though, is the sheer compositional brilliance: “It’s so detailed in the counterpoint, in the harmonizations, in the way he writes for the piano—it’s precise and beautiful writing. So I always try to approach it with as much integrity as I would approach anything, not trying to ham it up or cheap it down.”
But is there really a quintessential “New York” style? On tonight’s program, the Gershwin shares the spotlight with two other popular works by New Yorkers. And although all three composers were born within a short span of 19 years, and although all three works were written in a relatively brief period between 1924 and 1952, the stylistic range is tremendous, reminding us that what’s really quintessential about New York is its lack of essence—what conductor Larry Loh calls its “diversity.” Part of that diversity comes from New York’s position as a magnet for immigrants. Two of our three composers—Gershwin and Aaron Copland (1900-1990)—were children of recent immigrants; the third, Bela Bartók (1881-1945), was himself a refugee, coming to New York in 1940 to escape from fascism. This flux, providing a constantly enriched mixture of musical currents, certainly helps make sure that the “New York” style never keeps static.
In any case, the concert opens with something about as far from urban sophistication of the Rhapsody in Blue as possible—three selections from Copland’s Old American Songs. Copland was, if nothing else, a protean composer—and in his works, you can hear the influences of everything from the high modernism of Schoenberg and Stravinsky to the more popular idioms of jazz and folk music from both American continents. It’s perhaps typical of Copland’s dizzying range that the nostalgia-infused Old American Songs—arrangements of folk tunes, done with disarming simplicity and what Larry calls “innocence”—were composed between 1950 and 1952, just as Copland was writing some of his thorniest 12-tone works. Originally composed for voice and piano, the Old American Songs have become popular in a number of versions, including the arrangement for children’s chorus and orchestra that we’ll be hearing tonight.
If the Gershwin is urban and the Copland rural, our closing work is fundamentally international in spirit. Normally, Bartók is considered a “Hungarian” composer—and rightly so. But he wrote the Concerto for Orchestra in New York during his years of exile. The work has a poignant history. Bartók had a reputation as a “difficult” composer; that, combined with ill-health, kept his public profile down during his American years. By 1943, he was dying and nearly indigent. Two of his close friends, conductor Fritz Reiner and violinist Joseph Szigeti, wanted to help him out financially; but knowing that he would never accept anything that looked like charity, they managed to get conductor Serge Koussevitzky to commission a new work, keeping their own roles secret. No one really expected that the commission would be fulfilled—in fact, Bartók himself was doubtful that he could finish it. But the commission seems to have given him a new jolt of energy, and he was not only able to complete the work during a stay in Saranac Lake, but also to produce an instant hit that has remained his most popular composition for 70 years.
What’s behind its success? In part, it’s popular because of its attractive melodic content, much of it inspired by Hungarian folk music (although the tune that’s mocked in the fourth movement is derived either from The Merry Widow or from the Shostakovich Seventh, depending on what source you believe). In part, too, it’s been widely performed because as a true concerto for orchestra, it gives each section of the orchestra a chance to show off. But its effect also comes from its form. In contrast to the loosely structured Rhapsody in Blue, the five-movement Concerto for Orchestra is fairly tight. In fact, it has a kind of double structure. On a purely formal level, it reveals the kind of symmetrical arch form that Bartók so often employed: two large-scale outer movements, each separated by a scherzo from the elegy at the center of the work. On the emotional level, though, it’s far from symmetrical. The work begins in darkness: the opening of the first movement, as Larry sees it, is “barely breathing”—a “somber grumbling.” But over the course of the work, we move to what the composer called “the life-assertion of the last movement.” Indeed, as Larry points out, by the end it has “all the strength of the youngest person.” And it’s this upward trajectory, this triumph of affirmation, that makes it such an appropriate concert closer.
Peter J. Rabinowitz | prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org