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Pianist Natasha Paremski toasts the New Year with two amazing works by George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue and his Second Rhapsody. You’ll remember Quinn Mason’s gorgeous music from the 2020-21 season, and you’ll love his Toast of the Town Overture. Aaron Jay Kernis’s poignant Elegy honors all who have suffered during the COVID crisis.

 

 


PROGRAM

QUINN MASON: Toast of the Town-Overture
GERSHWIN: Second Rhapsody Wikipedia logo
GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue Wikipedia logo
KERNIS: Elegy (for those we lost) Wikipedia logo
STRAVINSKY: The Firebird: Suite (1919) Wikipedia logo


 


 

Symphoria is delighted to welcome Natasha Paremski back to Syracuse to perform two iconic Gershwin favorites.   In case you missed her previous Syracuse performances, please get to know her playing through this performance of Third movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 7.

PROGRAM NOTES

For our first Masterworks concert back in Crouse Hinds Hall, we’re offering a celebratory evening with a typically Symphoria mix of the familiar and the less familiar, a program that interleaves two favorite works with three others you might not know.

We start with a glass of champagne: the Toast of the Town (2016–2020) by Quinn Mason (b. 1996). You may remember his Reflection on a Memorial, a remembrance of victims of racial violence, premiered in Dallas by our conductor Larry Loh, and performed by Symphoria shortly thereafter. Toast of the Town is an entirely different sort of piece—...
For our first Masterworks concert back in Crouse Hinds Hall, we’re offering a celebratory evening with a typically Symphoria mix of the familiar and the less familiar, a program that interleaves two favorite works with three others you might not know.

We start with a glass of champagne: the Toast of the Town (2016–2020) by Quinn Mason (b. 1996). You may remember his Reflection on a Memorial, a remembrance of victims of racial violence, premiered in Dallas by our conductor Larry Loh, and performed by Symphoria shortly thereafter. Toast of the Town is an entirely different sort of piece—sparkling, rhythmically vital, and whimsical in spirit. The composer describes it as an “overture to an operetta that doesn’t exist”; and if it reminds you of Offenbach and Sir Arthur Sullivan, that’s just what he intended.

And we close with a burst of fireworks: music from the ballet The Firebird, composed in 1910 by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). The work was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky was not his first choice, but Diaghilev found himself in a pinch, having been turned down by several composers who were more prominent (or more prominent at the time). The risky move of turning to a relative unknown paid off. The Firebird launched Stravinsky’s career and went on to become his most frequently played score.

The story of the ballet mirrors that of Swan Lake. Prince Ivan stumbles on a group of princesses who have been enchanted by an evil sorcerer Kastchei. Ivan falls in love with one of them; with the help of a Firebird whose life he has spared, he hypnotizes the sorcerer’s followers, causing them to join in an “Infernal Dance” so energetic that they fall asleep. He then destroys Kastchei, rescues the captives, and is united with his beloved. The full ballet lasted about three-quarters of an hour, and called for lavish forces. Later, Stravinsky created three shorter suites—two calling for a leaner orchestra—to make the score more practical for concert performance. The second, from 1919, has been the most popular, and that’s what we hear tonight.

Besides its melodic richness, The Firebird is known for its rhythmic energy (especially in the “Infernal Dance”) and its superb orchestration. Two effects are particularly famous. Toward the very beginning, we can hear the luminous flash of the Firebird’s magic wings (technically, in harmonic glissandos on the strings); then, in the middle of the “Infernal Dance,” Stravinsky calls for trombone slides (a sound not in the original ballet—it was added in 1919).

At the center of the concert is the second of our favorites, the evergreen Rhapsody in Blue (1924) by George Gershwin (1898–1937), a work so thickly woven into American culture that even if you think you don’t know it, you’ll recognize it from its repeated use in soundtracks and commercials. It was originally commissioned by Paul Whiteman for an “experimental” concert aimed at bridging the gap between so-called classical and popular music. Gershwin was known at that time as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, and Rhapsody in Blue was his first concert work. Given his inexperience with large-scale compositions of this sort (indeed, he left the orchestration to Ferde Grofé, who made three different versions), and given the speed of composition (a couple of weeks), you might reasonably expect a certain imperfection in the result. But if there are any perfect gems in the repertoire, Rhapsody in Blue is one of them. And while Gershwin went on to write several other concert works, including such staples as An American in Paris, none has the prominence of Rhapsody in Blue. As tonight’s soloist Natasha Paremski puts it, most Americans think of it as “the American Piano Concerto, the American Tchaikovsky First”—a doubly apt comparison, since not only are both works super-popular, but both reveal a melodic genius that few others can match.

“Everyone knows” Rhapsody in Blue. Not everyone knows, however, that Gershwin wrote a sequel. Like many sequels, it failed to match the popularity of the original. Still, the Second Rhapsody (1931) has its own spirit, and some listeners prefer it to its predecessor. It’s often described as an expanded version of a sequence written for the 1931 film Delicious, during which Janet Gaynor, an newly arrived immigrant, wanders the threatening streets of night-time Manhattan. It may be the case, however, that the concert work was actually composed first. Gershwin briefly considered calling it Rhapsody in Rivets, a title that gives some idea of the music’s hard-edged, modernist energy, quite different from the luxuriousness of Rhapsody in Blue. Hard edged—but it wouldn’t be Gershwin without melodic glory. Halfway through there’s a succulent tune that stands with Gershwin’s best, one he often referred to as his “Brahms theme.”

Tonight, as is usually the case when the two rhapsodies are joined, we’ll be hearing them in reverse order, treating the Second, in Natasha’s words, as the “opening act” or “warm up” to its more familiar sibling. The two make very different demands on the pianist. In part, Natasha points out, that’s because Rhapsody in Blue is much more piano oriented—indeed, the Second was described at its world premiere as a work for “orchestra and piano.” In part, the different demands stem from their different relationships to the audience. “Most people don’t know the Second Rhapsody, so your challenge is to sell the piece. But most people do know the Blue, so your challenge is to bring a fresh approach so that people think, ‘I never heard it like that before.’” Of course, if you’ve heard Natasha play Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky with Symphoria in the past, you’ll know that she always offers a fresh approach. Still, the jazz elements in Rhapsody in Blue give her even more performance latitude than usual, more “freedom of not having the dogma of the score.”

How do Stravinsky and Gershwin fit together? The two rhapsodies are quintessentially New York (in fact, another title Gershwin considered for the Second Rhapsody was New York Rhapsody). They wouldn’t seem to have much in common with The Firebird, a profoundly Russian work, both in its plot and in its links to—even quotations of—Russian folk music. Certainly, Gershwin’s imagination doesn’t seem to have been fired by the music of Stravinsky in the same way that it was by that of Alban Berg (especially Wozzeck and the Lyric Suite). And while Gershwin and Stravinsky bumped into each other from time to time, their awkward meetings never led to the kind of friendship Gershwin had with his tennis-partner Arnold Schoenberg.

But perhaps the links are stronger than might first appear. After all, Gershwin was the child of Russian immigrants who, like Stravinsky, came from the St. Petersburg area. Then, too, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who premiered the Second Rhapsody, seems to have intuited some Russian background—at least, when he performed it, he liked to place it in the context of Russian music. More significant, Gershwin himself seems to have recognized Russian roots in the Second Rhapsody, since in the film Delicious, the work is introduced as if it were a composition by one of the characters, a Russian musician named Sascha.

Natasha sees the Russian links, too. When she has performed Russian concertos with us in the past, she’s called attention to their connections to American jazz. When performing Gershwin—and remember, she called Rhapsody in Blue “the American Tchaikovsky First”—she points to an influence that moves in the opposite direction, “a Jewish Russian flavor that has been around for a while.” Indeed, she insists, the Russian influence is broader than that. “Russians of all religions—Jewish, Muslim, Christian— have a common rhythmic attitude,” she says—an attitude that links the Rhapsodies to Firebird, especially the “Infernal Dance.”

This is a celebratory concert, but we can’t forget the tears, and we couldn’t have a program without some moment of reflection on the pandemic. So after intermission, we offer the 2020 Elegy—For Those We Lost by Aaron Jay Kernis (b. 1960). Kernis himself caught Covid early on. Although it was a mild case, it was, even so, “one of the scariest experiences I ever had.” What really spurred the work, however, was less his own experience that his “empathy and concern” for families that could not be with their loved ones and for “the doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals who worked so tirelessly to save those loved ones.” A profound meditation on grief, it takes off from a theme fittingly reminiscent of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, building to a heart-wrenchingly passionate climax before fading away.

Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org

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