The music of George (and Ira!) Gershwin

September 5, 2016, 5:54 PM · I had a bit of a BBC Proms listening "streak" this weekend, listening to a few different concerts. Yesterday afternoon was Prom 66, with the Berlin Philharmonic, with Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances" (Op. 46), Brahms' Second Symphony, and a UK premiere of a piece called "Incantesimi" by Julian Anderson. That evening I obsessed over George and Ira Gershwin's music, played by the John Wilson orchestra in Prom 38. And today, I listened to a bit of Ravel's music in Prom 67. This is the final week of the Proms, with the Last Night this Saturday evening! It was nice listening to the BBC Extra talks, during the intervals. The interval before the Brahms was cool because they discussed the great symphony he wrote in 1877, and how Mahleresque it is. Before that, they even had a little extra discussion on the queuing to the concert; everyone wanted to go hear one of the greatest orchestras in the world! People having their lunchtime picnics in the grass near the Hall... It just gets me excited to go to London myself someday! Maybe...

I wanted to focus this entry more on Gershwin's music a little here, and my "mini-obsession" I had over it, as I pretty much spent yesterday evening listening to the entire concert. I took more notes for the Proms Extra for this particular concert because it intrigued me more, listening to it at our little café on campus after dinner. Along with the discussion of that famous meeting between Gershwin and Ravel (where, when visiting the city where he wrote his tone-poem "An American in Paris", Gershwin wanted lessons with Ravel, who said "Why become a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?", and in response to the latest 20's craze of jazz, Ravel added, "I should be taking lessons from you!" Gershwin was one of the first "cross-over" composers who wrote orchestral and popular music alike, writing four songs in the morning "to get the bad ones out of his head". His music also contained a fusion of a ragtime-based jazz and the symphonic (classical) music that came before him. This concert featured some new orchestrations (and recreations of some of Gershwin's film music, coming from scraps of piano rolls and scratchy old records from the films) that had been lost and never heard in concert form until now. Additionally, the roundtable trio lamented how if Gershwin had lived for even 20 more years, he could have written a Violin or Trombone concerto - more hits like Rhapsody in Blue or his Piano Concerto in F! Oh well... They even talked about how his opera/musical thing, Porgy and Bess (opened at the Alvin Theatre in New York on October 10, 1935) contained not just jazz influences, but atonality and polytonality as well - as well as French influences, Gershwin also looked at Berg and Schoenberg too.

Of course, we can discuss the roundtable all day, but in the end music was played at the concert! They said they had 18 pieces performed there, not counting the encores, and not everything on it was a "hit" when it was first released. While there were lots of his pop songs like "'S Wonderful" (1927; from "An American in Paris" - 1957), "Strike up the Band" (1927; 1940), and "Applause, Applause" (1950), the last of which Ira Gershwin had wrote the lyrics for another composer, the full ballet "An American in Paris" was performed at the end, as well as the overture for "Rhapsody in Blue" as the concert-opener. This music, more-so even then the concert music of this time, which sounds just as fresh as ever to my ears, still manages to preserve a 20's old-timey record phonograph sound of some sort - in other words, even listening to it now in 2016, with much better recording equipment in this digital age, the music still sounds very 20's, which is a fact I don't think anything can change. The brass do a great job throughout of keeping a steady jazzy backbeat with the rhythm section throughout - solos in trombone, trumpet, and clarinet are ever prominent, with the occasional violin solo thrown in too. Then, of course, the wonderful strings sound this era of music does so well. It reminds me so much of Christmas music, and gives me a warm happy feeling inside, hearing the strings especially throughout Gershwin's pop music. I'll certainly be enjoying listening to some of these songs around the holidays, too.

So all in all, while the most Gershwin's music will have done for me as a composer is get me to want to use jazz drums in my wind ensemble piece I'm currently writing, and perhaps give me more jazz influences (like Ravel had with his Piano Concerti!) to work on, I think all of it is a lot of fun to listen to, both orchestral and pop (since his pop music does have such great orchestral accompaniment parts!). Plus, this term we're playing Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" - a very different style of music than what was touched on in this concert, as it leant more towards the French side of things, but still, it's Gershwin, and I guess I have a new respect for the composer when playing something he wrote this fall.

Here are a few links to things on the topic of Gershwin:

On the John Wilson Orchestra and their Gershwin BBC Proms 2016 concert.

An American in Paris (1928).

Funny Face (1927).

Here's a really cool period recording of "Funny Face" on a phonograph!

Also, something NOT on this topic, over the summer I participated in the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra project, where I played the Violin I part. Here is a link to our collaboration.


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