Thursday, February 09, 2017 8:30am
On Saturday 11 February, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with virtuoso pianist Simon Tedeschi and Principal Conductor Nicholas Carter in the ASO’s sold out Rhapsody & Symphony concert.
We take a look at the history of the piece and Gershwin’s life, and reveal a distant connection between the composer Gershwin and soloist Simon Tesdeschi.
Above: George Gershwin.
1. Gershwin first read about the commission in the newspaper
According to the UK’s Classic FM, the great American composer first found out he was meant to be writing what would become his most ground-breaking work from a newspaper article.
Late on the night of 3 January 1924, George Gershwin, his brother Ira and lyricist Buddy DeSylva were playing billiards in a 52nd Street hall on Broadway, when an article in the New York Tribune caught Ira’s eye. Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Band would be performing a concert of new American music at Aeolian Hall in a month.
“George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto,” ran the article. But this was news to George!
Paul Whiteman was a composer, impresario violinist and American bandleader – in fact he was probably the most popular bandleader of the 1920s and enjoyed the title ‘King of Jazz’ and his ‘jazz band’ was more like a large dance orchestra that used jazz musicians from time to time.
Apparently, Whiteman twisted Gershwin's arm saying all he had to do was supply a piano score and brilliant in-house arranger, Ferde Grofé would orchestrate the work… And the rest, as they say, is history!
2. Gershwin’s first job was a “song plugger”
When Gershwin left school at the age of 15 his first job as a "song plugger" for Detroit-based publishing firm Jerome H. Remick and Company. He worked behind the scenes from the New York City branch office on iconic Tin Pan Alley on West 28th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Gershwin’s job was to pitch songwriters’ compositions to producers, Artist & Repertoire representatives, managers and music supervisors. With Gershwin’s help, songwriters could hear their songs performed on stage or on the soundtrack of a hit TV show. He earned $15 a week.
3. Gershwin started out on Tin Pan Alley
Starting his career on Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin churned out what he hoped would be hit tunes. His first published piece of music was the song When you want ’em, you can’t get ’em, when you got ’em, you don’t want ’em (lyrics by Murray Roth), but he struck gold – royalties of $10,000 in the first year alone – with Swanee, recorded in 1919 by Al Jolson.
4. The clickety-clack of the train
Librettist and writer, Gordon Kalton Williams writes in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Rhapsody & Symphony concert program that Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue falls into the three-movement fast-slow-fast pattern standard for classical piano concertos, but also has a popular feel with its melodies and the odd blues inflection. The opening clarinet cadenza is probably the most obvious – and recognisable – ‘jazz’ feature plus the use of so-called "vernacular" instruments, such as a banjo and saxophones.
Williams discusses how the themes for the concerto began spontaneously to run through Gershwin’s head on a train trip to Boston for the premiere of his musical comedy Sweet Little Devil. The clickety-clack of the long-distance trip inspired rhythms which are recognised today to be as American as anything that came out of Hollywood or Broadway in the 1920s. Gershwin himself heard the piece as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness”.
5. Gershwin put American concert jazz on the map
Rhapsody in Blue was a sensation at its premiere on Broadway on 12 February 1924, almost instantly winning Gershwin concert hall fame. Featuring composer Gershwin as soloist, this piece was premiered in front of a packed house that included such musical luminaries as Rachmaninov, violinist Fritz Kreisler and conductor Leopold Stokowski. This marked the start of the serious influence of American jazz in concert music worldwide.
6. Movies & TV
Rhapsody in Blue has featured in many films and television commercials over the years – and even featured in an United Airlines advertising campaign!
In David Schiff’s Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, from 1997, he opens by saying that United Airlines paid a whopping $300,000 per year to use the music in their advertising, on the plane, and at O'Hare Airport in Chicago.
Above: United Airlines television commercial
Rhapsody in Blue has featured in the movies The Great Gatsby and Fantasia 2000. Even The Simpsons TV show used Rhapsody in Blue twice: in the 2010 episode Elementary School Musical and again in 2012 in The D’oh-cial Network.
Above: The Great Gatsby. Copyright of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 2013 All Rights Reserved.
7. Tedeschi & Gershwin: distant relatives?
Acclaimed Australian pianist Simon Tedeschi and George Gershwin: they are centuries and continents apart, but their stories align.
Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898. His Jewish parents had come to New York from Russia a few years before.
Tedeschi's grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Poland. His grandmother Lucy Gershwin, is believed to be distantly related to Gershwin.
"My family could have ended up at Ellis Island," Tedeschi said. "Instead they came to Circular Quay."
Tedeschi’s unique take on Gershwin’s timeless repertoire has been described by Harmonica legend Larry Adler as ‘reminiscent of Gershwin himself. The greatest Gershwin exponent I have ever seen.’
Above: Virtuoso pianist Simon Tedeschi
The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra first performed Rhapsody in Blue at a Light Music Festival on 13 March 1957 with conductor Henry Krips and pianist Isador Goodman. The Orchestra’s most recent performance took place on 9-10 August 2013 with Marc Taddei and Kevin Cole.
This article was written by Michelle Robins, Publications & Communications Coordinator, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and draws on Symphony Australia program notes by Gordon Kalton Williams which were published in the ASO's Rhapsody & Symphony concert program, Howard Pollack’s book on Gershwin and the UK’s Classic FM website.
Gordon Kalton Williams © Symphony Australia
Pollack, Howard (2006). George Gershwin. His Life and Work. University of California Press