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Manchester music reviews

Stefano Bollani

Gorgeous Gershwin

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Stefano Bollani piano and Clark Rundell conductor

by Denis Joe July 2011

at Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

 

Overture, Strike up the band!
Gershwin Songs
Piano Improvisation
Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture
Rhapsody in Blue

 

Higuchi: “If only the whole world would listen to Gershwin”
[Wild Life –Shinji Aoyama]

 

As part of the RLPO’s Summer Pops season this concert of Gershwin music was more than just entertainment and certainly more deserved of the adjective ‘gorgeous’, than the former MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. This was an evening divided between the populist Gershwin and the serious composer. But even in the opening orchestral piece, ‘Strike up the band!’, one could detect the hint of American serious art music. Whilst the first opening bars of the piece echo Sousa’s marches their pomposity is quickly ditched in favour of lush cosmopolitanism and hedonism.

 

‘Strike up the band!’ was based on a political satire that would gladden the heart of many of today’s conspiracy theorist, who would see nothing silly in the idea of a Swiss cheese maker wanting to maintain his market in the United States by trying to get the government to declare war on Switzerland. During its original 1927 pre-Broadway run, the musical closed after a Saturday night performance in Philadelphia, fulfilling original librettist's George S. Kaufman's definition of satire as "what closes on Saturday night". In 1930 Gershwin joined forces with the original author, Morrie Ryskind, to ‘soften’ the storyline and emphasise the romantic element. The musical went on to have a Broadway run of 191 performances.

 

Strike Up The BandThis orchestration of the music reminds me a bit of Charles Ives’ who would also use military band music as a springboard into another world. I think this gave the USA its own distinct approach to music. Unlike European composers, the Americans created a music that has a very masculine feel to it. In fact Ives rejected the European tradition, dismissing Mozart as 'lady-finger music'. Perhaps, in this sense, Ives was much like the pioneering poet Walt Whitman, who also turned his back on the European tradition and, in doing so, paved the way for generations to create a distinctive American culture. Surely, however great the operettas of Kalman and Lehar were, they did not have the dynamism and joie de vie, that became themainstay of the American musicals of the first six decades of the 20th century.

 

The Overture to ‘Strike Up The Band!’ is an excellent example of this. One couldn’t imagine a conductor doing the can-can whilst taking charge of the music of Offenbach’s ’Orpheus In The Underworld’', but Clark Rundell could barely restrain himself during this opening piece. The Orchestra were outstanding and conveyed a sense of excitement that was to dominate the evening.

 

Stefano Bollani then took the stage for piano accompaniment on the orchestral versions of three Gershwin songs. I’m usually used to hearing the songs sung by Fred Astaire on a CD called ‘Steppin’ out’ (a Verve album, recorded in 1952 with some of the greatest jazz musicians) and it was odd to hear just the music. But the opening of ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, played as a piano solo, was every bit as moving as Astaire’s voice. As was ‘Embraceable You’. The string section of the RLPO played this so lushly that the lack of lyrics took nothing away as the instruments made as good a voice as the greatest of crooners. ‘I got Rhythm’ was played as if to remind us just what makes an outstanding tune and why it is, alongside with the Beatle’s ‘Yesterday’, one of the most covered pieces of music, especially favoured by jazz musicians.

 

Bollani was simply outstanding and although I only knew of him through the hype, I have to say that nothing prepared me for his mastery of the keyboard. Then the orchestra left the stage and Bollani treated us to piano improvisations of Gershwin songs and we were in the presence of a truly great master.

 

This was a spontaneous display but one that showed how much Bollani felt for the music. It seemed as if he wanted to travel through a history of Jazz and whilst there was a great deal of control over what he was doing, Bollani could afford to relax enough to clown around. He had the audience in his hands, and I cannot recall a time when I felt so thrilled at a concert.

 

The improvisations (I lost count of trying to ‘name those tunes’) had Bollani stabbing, jabbing, poking and stroking the piano keys. This was showing-off big style. But when you are as great a talent as this man, then it would be criminal not to show off. Bollani also managed to create a feeling of intimacy that was pure magic for a concert hall.

 

Porgy and BessAfter the interval the mood changed somewhat. ‘Porgy and Bess’, and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ gives us Gershwin the composer of serious music. Gershwin was not only responsible for composing some of the greatest of American classical music, he composed great music that ranks him alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and even Shostakovich. If that sounds hyperbole then it can only be because Gershwin is (was?) primarily seen as a composer of pop music: that he composed for material gain (as if man could live by spirituality alone). But composers have always sought material gain.

 

Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier has some of the most beautiful music ever written for the piano. But it has only become ‘serious’ art because of what future generations projected on it. For Bach it was simply an advertisement for the keyboard of the time that would eventually supplant the keyboard we know as the harpsichord. That it became the foundation for western classical music is secondary to the fact that the composer had to make money (he had a lot of mouths to feed) and there is no evidence to suggest that he had any qualms about that. It is only with the ideal of the Romantic artist do we have the image of the artist suffering for their art [Wagner certainly enjoyed ‘the good life’, it was everyone else around him that had to suffer for his art].

 

Initial response to Gershwin taking a more ‘serious’ approach were mixed’. The idea that this ‘entertainer’ could produce works of any depth was not universally accepted at the time. A review by Wagner specialist, Lawrence Gilman, stated:

How trite, feeble and conventional the tunes are; how sentimental and vapid the harmonic treatment, under its disguise of fussy and futile counterpoint! ... Weep over the lifelessness of the melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive!

[see Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective. p. 105 W. W. Norton & Co.]

 

And even those you would have expected to have been more open, where no less damning. Leonard Bernstein said of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’: it was “ not a composition at all. It's a string of separate paragraphs stuck together.” However serious composers have never shied away from producing ‘pop’. Even Britten and Schönberg wrote cabaret songs.

 

If Rhapsody in Blue was controversial, then Gershwin’s opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’ created a bigger outcry. On a commission from the New York Metropolitan Opera House for an American opera, Gershwin wanted to use the story by the white Southerner, DuBose Heyward as the basis for his grand opera. As with many US institutions of the time, the Met was segregated and there were no black performers on its books. Gershwin and Heyward did not want a cast that ‘blacked up’ (The composers of Show Boat, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, made an a offer to Heyward for the musical rights. Al Jolson was to play Porgy. Kern, Hammerstein, and Jolson planned to turn the book into a musical comedy using a cast in blackface).

 

After a few try-out that led to the opera being edited from over four hours to roughly two-and a-half hours, ‘Porgy and Bess’ ran on Broadway, in 1935, for 121 performances. Responses to it were mixed. The New York Times had three critics and three views:

Drama critic Brooks Atkinson commented: "Turning Porgy into opera has resulted in a deluge of casual remarks that have to be thoughtfully intoned and that annoyingly impede the action."

Chief music critic Joseph Swain observed that "the drama critics objected to recitative per se and the music critics to 'Summertime,' 'I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'‘ and other tunes which seemed 'too popular' for opera."

Musicologist Charles Hamm notes that opera has "continuous music, dialogue, and recitative whereas, in musical comedy, the plot is advanced by spoken dialogue." One can see clear aspects of a Broadway song style in ‘Summertime,’ ‘Oh, I Can't Sit Down’ and ‘It Ain't Necessarily So’,’ Porgy's "Banjo Song’ and ‘I Got Plenty O' Nuttin.’ [see The Complicated Life of Porgy and Bess By James Standifer].

 

It was as if canonical composer, such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, were never inspired by the popular music of their times. Gershwin was really doing what other ‘serious’ composers of his time, were engaged in: an ethnographic approach to music. Bartok and Vaughn Williams had composed pieces based on the studies of their respective country’s folk music and the American composer Henry Cowell studied much of the music of various cultures and was, perhaps, the father of what became known as, ‘World Music’.

 

Porgy and Bess was not the first US opera to feature an all-black cast. The composer Virgil Thomson had premiered his opera, ‘Four Saints in Three Acts’, on Broadway the year before ‘Porgy and Bess’. Though having a libretto written by Gertrude Stein, it is not as sophisticated as ‘Porgy and Bess’, either musically and definitely not literally. That did not stop Thomson from voicing his negative opinions on Gershwin’s opera.

 

‘Porgy and Bess’ was not performed at the Met until 1985, under James Levine, and it is still a ‘controversial work these days [e.g. see: Musical Masterpiece: Racist Plot?]. A new production is being put on for the 2011/12 season at the A.R.T. centre on Broadway. The new adaption is by Suzan-Lori Parks who says, rather ominously: “... we're working to retain all the best-loved elements of the original while crafting a piece that speaks to contemporary audiences.”

 

‘Porgy and Bess’ is not a commentary on black people or how they live. It is an opera that is, to use the Italian term, vermissio, and Gershwin took Puccini’s model to shape his opera. ‘Bess, you is my woman’ and ‘I loves you Porgy’ are two of the most beautifully crafted arias in the world of opera. Gershwin, like Puccini, was a composer with a business head on them. They knew what would appeal to an audience and whilst the soaring strings of ‘O soave fanciulla’ in La Bohéme may serve the same purpose as those in ‘Bess, you is my woman now’, it is not simply a ‘tug on the heartstrings’ but a very profound statement on the human condition. If it is to be seen as sickly sentimentality then all human emotion is likewise.

 

And like all great opera, ‘Porgy and Bess’, confronts us with what it means to be human, and rationalises the irrational in us all. The ‘Symphonic Picture’ (not an ‘Overture’) drew that out beautifully. The whole rainbow of emotion from the opera was covered and even the section where Robert Shepley  picks the banjo to the tune of 'I Got Plenty o' Nuttin' had a depth to it drawing out the contented resignation of the song even without the lyrics. The manner in which the ‘Symphonic Picture’ was executed by the RLPO was reverential and yet the smiles on the faces of some orchestra members was something rare, but refreshing, to experience in a concert hall.

 

Clark RundellWhilst the piano was being wheeled back into place for the final piece, Clark Rundell, showed himself, not only to be a nifty dancer, but also a bit of a showman. Going through his personal feelings for the music of Gershwin we knew that we were not being given any flannel. The guy loves the music. He also gave us a bit of background to the piece. In 1924 the great bandleader Paul Whiteman, commission  Ferde Grofé (who was to orchestrate ‘Rhapsody in Blue’) and George Gershwin for pieces to be played at a special concert entitled ‘An Experiment in Modern Music’. Grofé’s ‘Grand Canyon Suite’ received its premiere as did ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (Incredibly, written in five weeks, in order to meet the deadline for the concert).

 

Many commentators have classed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ as a piano concerto in one movement. I think that this is a mistake. A concerto tends to be a dialogue – generally an argument between the solo instrument(s) and the orchestra. The use of the term ‘Rhapsody’ for Gershwin’s piece makes more sense as the piano is not in conflict. Though the piano has an individual role within the piece it is one where it becomes part of the whole. For me, understanding ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is best if one thinks of it as a piece that illustrates a day in the life of a city dweller, from the opening ‘yawn’ of the day to the business of getting on with business.

 

Through the piece we experience the hustle and bustle of living. We can picture crowds of people making their way to work. We can hear the routine of work then the return home; tired, in need of a drink and distraction. By the close of the piece we hear a winding-down; a relief that the important stuff has been seen to for the day and it ends on a note of triumph. Not one of winning a war, but the triumph of the ordinary ‘Joe’ at the end of another eventful day. It celebrates the metropolis: the chaos; the speed; the crowd. And it tell us that within all this there is the individual who is at once part of that living and also a lone voice with his own loves, hates and needs. And if anything ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is the greatest celebration of modern life because, unlike, say, Antheil’s ‘Ballet Mécanique’, Gershwin puts the human being at the centre of the modern world.

 

Rhapsody in BlueBollani was welcomed back onto the stage and took his place for ‘Rhapsody in Blue’. Though we know that his role will be that of the individual voice, it is not the piano that opens the piece but we hear that yawn of the clarinet – one of the most outstanding introductions to a piece of music. It is not a yawn of boredom but one of awakening and expectancy. It is the yawn that greets the new day. I like to think that the ‘Blue’ in the title does not refer to sadness but to expansiveness and the possibilities of a clear sky.

 

One of the many great things about this piece of music is the demand it puts on solo members of the orchestra. Perhaps the most important is the first voice we hear; that of the clarinet. Thus, I really felt for Nicholas Cox, when a duff note entered into that famous opening. It was a wince-inducing moment but one can be excused, particularly as he played the rest of his parts in the piece, flawlessly.

 

Bollani was outstanding. It cannot be easy for a soloist to improvise in the manner that ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ demands. But everything fitted in perfectly. I would not be surprised if Bollani make this his own piece, rather in the way that André Previn’s 1971 recording set the standard until Bollani’s recent  recording with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and Riccardo Chailly.

 

The RPLO put everything into this and particular mention should be made of Josephine Frieze and Jenny Marsden on percussion. During the evening Bollani mentioned how he only recently learned that the RLPO were one of the oldest orchestras in the world “But they look so young!”. Whilst the joke may be a bit stale it did highlight something that makes the RLPO such a dynamic organisation and that is their refusal to stand still. Whilst many orchestras are happy to play old chestnuts as long as bums are placed on seats, the RLPO is prepared to take risks and cover new ground. Gershwin may not seem so new – irrespective of the fact that the music sounds more fresh and lively than much of what is being done today in art and pop music. And Gershwin is certainly popular. But his music is not popular because it is easily digestible: The music is popular because it is great music; pure and simple.

 

This concert is part of Summer Pops 2011. Until recently I would have turned my nose up at putting such great music into a ‘lame’ category, but I think that the RLPO have helped clarify that term ‘pop’ for me. Whilst there will always be a divide of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art (and Gershwin falls into the former category) that distinction shouldn’t, in the grand scale of things, matter. What should matter, as Angus Kennedy made clear in a recent Manchester Salon discussion on the arts, is that we recognise and value that demarcation and that there is nothing wrong in being discriminatory about the things that mean something to us. And so whilst I will not be attending ‘The Three Phantoms’ concert (having a special loathing for anything that has the name ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber’ attached to it) and whilst the prospect of sitting through orchestrated versions of Beatle songs doesn’t exactly fill me with peace and love (having had to endure my Dad’s ‘The Boston Pops Orchestra Play The Beatles’ albums when I was a kid) some people will get great pleasure from those concerts. What is safe to say, irrespective of my own opinions about the music, is that the RLPO will provide them with a great evening.

 

One other thing that became clear to me whilst thinking about this review was how some pop stars tend to reach a period in their lives where they feel that they are actually destined for greater things. Some may have been lauded by critics as ‘genius’ or ‘saviours of culture’ and tend to believe the hype.  Some tend to have too much money and time on their hands and go off to find themselves an orchestra or group of classically trained musicians in need of cash, in a bid for ‘greatness’.

 

Paul McCartney is one example having produced five ‘classical’ albums (none of which captured the public’s discerning imagination – perhaps the last one, ‘Ecce Cor Meum’, was confusing as the title might have been Latin or the most recent version of Scouse). Equally self-deluding is Elvis Costello who, in 1993 teamed up with the Brodsky Quartet and produced the ‘Juliet Letters’, an album of Bartok and Shostakovich for Baby, with Elvis singing lyrics that he must have written and rejected before ‘My aim Is True’, for being too crap! Undaunted, he went on to make an album with Anne Sofie von Otter in 2001 (on the Deutsche Grammophon label) as well as two more for DG, which included the pretentiously, but unimaginatively titled ‘Il Sogno’, a ballet.

 

Aged prog rocker Roger Walters and spokesperson for fashionable radicalism, wrote an opera, ‘Ça Ira’. Released in 2005 fifteen minutesof it was featured as part of Malta’s celebrations for entering the European Union in 2004 (I kid you not!). It received its full premiere in 2005 in Rome. La Repubblica said: ‘The opera was “eclectic” and derivative, with more “songs” than arias, and relentless crescendos in the style of Carl Orff. It was “like an elephant trying to take to the air with a small pair of wings”.’

 

Echo and the Bunnymen got po-faced with an orchestral version of ‘Ocean Rain’ at the Echo Arena in Liverpool a few years back and James are doing something similar, these days. It’s good that trained musicians are getting work and getting paid and it might help them get onto bigger things (it helped Stefano Bollani to work a session musician for pop singers), but the standard of the work that these pretenders are producing seems hardly worth the effort. There seems to be an idea that if you can come up with a tune (preferably one that you can whistle) then you are a composer. But things don’t quite work that way and much of the time the public can see through the posing and the popstars end up looking stupid.

 

GershwinIt is true that Gershwin started out as a successful tunesmith. He was a popstar of his day. But it is equally true that history will provide us with the occasional genius who have something that money can’t buy and that is the talent to create great things that tell us something about our lives that provoke us and force us to confront things that we may never have given a second thought to. It would be best all round if Costello sat back and thought “Well I made ‘This Year’s Model’ and ‘Armed Forces’ and I wrote ‘Shipbuilding’. I’m not really going to top that.”

 

The ‘Gorgeous Gershwin’ concert made me realise what a loss to the world of art it was that Gershwin only left us with a handful of serious music pieces. But those pieces were not suggestive of great things; they were great things and his early death robbed us all of a potentially richer life.

 
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