The NYO Prom, 2022: Ravel and Gershwin

NYO Prom 2022

The annual visit of the National Youth Orchestra to the Proms is always a great event. This year, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, their programme included Ravel and Gershwin—listen here (also to be shown on BBC TV on 19th August).

Fokine 1910
Michel Fokine in Daphnis and Chloé, c1910. Source: wiki.

The week after Ravel’s piano concerto, Daphnis and Chloé was ravishing as ever, brilliantly played—even if I wanted rather more fantasy, bringing out its balletic, gestural, impromptu, sensual qualities, as my rose-tinted hearing-aid recalls Boulez conducting it in the 1970s…

In the first half, after Danny Elfman’s Wunderkammer, Simone Dinnerstein played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, always a pleasure. As an encore they played a Gershwin arrangement by Trish Clowes, conducted by NYO percussionist Sophie Stevenson (her jaunty hat not recalling the headwear of the Albert Hall audiences of yesteryear).

hats Albert Hall 1908Source.

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, pp.155–63) has some salient perspectives on Gershwin. The premiere of Rhapsody in blue, “with one foot in the kitchen, one in the salon”, was part of the mission “to give jazz a quasi-classical respectability” (cf. What is serious music?!, and Joining the elite musical club).

The wiki article on the piece has intriguing detail. Gershwin first wrote it in 1924 for a concert at the Aeolian Hall in New York entitled “An experiment in modern music”, whose purpose was “to be purely educational”. Conceiving it as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness”, he played the solo piano part himself, with the score for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band arranged by Ferde Grofé. Gershwin partially improvised, and only committed the piano part to paper after the performance (cf. Messiaen).

Lawrence Gilman’s review of the premiere is included in Nicolas Slonimsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective:

I weep over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.

Like the audience, other critics were more enthusiastic, one commenting that the piece had “made an honest woman out of jazz” (oh, so jazz is female is it, like ships? Pah!). On an incongruous note, the concert ended with Elgar’s Pomp and circumstance March No.1.

Further to the piano rolls of Mahler and Debussy, here’s a gorgeous (if very fast) recording of Gershwin’s own piano roll from 1925 fused with the Columbia Jazz Band directed by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976:

Amidst all the jazzy glitz, crowning the piece (from 8.22 on the recording above) is one of the All-Time Great Tunes, * worthy of Rachmaninoff—in sumptuous E major, to boot!

By the time Grofé made the orchestral arrangement in 1942, jazz hardly needed the veneer of respectability, although it did go on to acquire a quasi-classical status.

Gershwin poster

Rhapsody in blue soon became the soundscape of New York (for well-off white people, I guess that means). Some musicians still had reservations about it, like Constant Lambert: “neither good jazz nor good Liszt”. Leonard Bernstein’s comments have been seen as criticism, but read more like an insight into the intrinsic nature of jazz, countering reification:

Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut out parts of it without affecting the whole in any way except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another and no harm done. You can make cuts within a section, or add new cadenzas, or play it with any combination of instruments or on the piano alone; it can be a five-minute piece or a six-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact all these things are being done to it every day. It’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.

It’s mainly become a frozen vehicle for WAM pianists rather than jazzers, but here’s a refreshing 1995 recording with Marcus Roberts:

Among composers who were reluctant to inflict their learning on such a genius as Gershwin were Nadia Boulanger, Ravel, Schoenberg—and Alban Berg, who remarked wisely:

“Mr Gershwin, music is music.”

* * *

Oh well—in the end the NYO Prom was still, um, an orchestral concert. Maybe I was still in world-music mode after immersing myself in the Pontic lyra and Rajasthani bards, so I had to get used again to the whole complex regimentation of the orchestral machine, and found myself struck by the vast investment of aspirational parents (instruments, lessons, giving lifts to local venues…).

For some of the NYO’s previous Proms, click here, here, and here. Listen here for Barbara Hannigan singing Gershwin. See also many posts under A jazz medley, and Society and soundscape.


* With my usual qualifications—remembering (of course) to include in our remit Hildegard von Bingen, fado, the preludes of north Chinese ritual wind ensembles, kilam laments of Kurdish bards, and so on.

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