Composers George Gershwin and Brian Ciach: musical innovation via slightly different methods
The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s all-Gershwin season opening gala may have occured many months ago, but PBS’s “Great Performances” is only now getting around to broadcasting the video from the concert — most of it, anyway. Better late (and abridged) than never.
The first broadcast is this evening at 6pm Pacific Time (on KPBS and PBS SoCal, among other California stations), with repeats at odd hours throughout the weekend and into next week. What you get to see is Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil in An American in Paris, joined by Herbie Hancock in Rhapsody in Blue, and Mr. Hancock’s solo jazz abstraction of Someone to Watch Over Me. Alas, the show is only one hour long, so what you will miss from the original concert is the orchestra performing the Cuban Overture and Mr. Hancock doing improvisations on Embraceable You.”
In addition to Mr. Hancock’s inspired solo turns, make a point of enjoying Michele Zukovsky’s slinky clarinet in the beginning of the Rhapsody, along with excellent trumpet work by Tom Hooten and Jim Wilt (in An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue, respectively). Since the LA Phil has said that no DVD of this performance is planned for sale, go set your TiVo (or generic branded DVR) right now. I’ll wait . . .
If that isn’t enough Gershwin for you, or if you like to compare and contrast two different orchestra’s performance of the work, you’re in luck: the New York Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concert which was broadcast on “Live from Lincoln Center” is still available for viewing online (click HERE). The episode “expires” on Monday, Jan 9, so catch it before it goes away.
The concert includes Piano Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as piano soloist; also featured are incoming Principal Clarinet Roberto Morales, and the incomparable Phil Smith on trumpet (I’m glad the camera got some close-ups of his felt hat mute during the concerto). Those two Gershwin pieces alternate with two Bernstein works: the overture to Candide, and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The NY Phil’s Music Director, Alan Gilbert, is the conductor. In addition to the concert footage, the video features a worthwhile interview with Mr. Morales and his approach to the famous clarinet solo that opens the Rhapsody, plus some Q & A with both Mr. Thibaudet and Mr. Gilbert; Alec Baldwin tolerably serves as host and interviewer.
I thought Mr. Gilbert’s tempos dragged and his overall interpretation was too cool in all the pieces. It’s as if he was holding back the players of the NY Phil, an orchestra that can cut loose with the best of them when allowed to do so. Mr. Thibaudet sounded especially good in the concerto, though his improvisational moments in the Rhapsody sometimes sounded a bit awkward. (In fairness, you could say — and many did — the inverse regarding Mr. Hancock’s own performance of the Rhapsody; namely, that his improvisations were the best moments and his attempts to follow the notes were his worst.)
National Public Radio (NPR) caused a bit of a buzz a few days ago when All Things Considered ran a story about some professional violinists’ abilities — or lack thereof — to correctly identify the Strad among violins made by Stradivari, Guarneri, and contemporary luthiers. Just to make it even more fun, the NPR website also lets everyone into the act: they have two 19-second clips of violinist Christopher Joyce playing the same excerpt from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, and challenge you to pick the Strad (click HERE to try it yourself — the correct answer is at the bottom of the article, so don’t read ahead if you aren’t planning to cheat).
Sam Bergman, blogger and violist with the Minnesota Orchestra, offers up some very interesting thoughts and observations of the “test” in a recent post. He mentions that he, along with most of the other professional string players he knows, were able to pick the Strad out right away. He goes on to make a number of other points, and links to many other related posts by the likes of Steven Isserlis and Alex Ross, among others. Rather than have me attempt to summarize any further, click on the link and read his fine post for yourself.
Speaking of the Minnesota Orchestra . . . in case you get saturated with Gershwin and want a little contemporary music instead, tonight’s Future Classics concert ( the “culminating event” of their Composer Institute, according to their website) is a doozy.
The up-and-coming composers to be featured are Michael Holloway, Andreia Pinto-Correia, Hannah Lash, Shen Yiwen, Adrian Knight, and Brian Ciach. Full program notes and composer bios are HERE. Ms. Lash’s blog posts about her experience leading to the concert can be found HERE.
I’m sure the whole program will be interesting, but the piece I really want to here Is “Collective Uncommon: Seven Orchestral Studies on Medical Oddities” by Mr. Ciach. What a great name for a piece — and each of the seven movements also have whimsically bizarre (OK, some might call them gross) titles like:
- I. ”Megacolon (Mensuration Canon)”
- II. ”The Progressive Ossification of Harry Eastlack (Variations on a Decending Bass)”
. . . but wait, there’s more! Read Mr. Ciach’s program notes, and you get gems like this:
“Attempting to evoke these oddities brought new forms, instrumental pairings/transformations, “food instruments” and new instruments into my imagination. . . . The Megacolon calls for amplified ripped-open cabbages, stirred macaroni and cheese, and a cow moo can, all contributing to a large orchestral round on a long-winded musical subject evoking an intestinal tract.”
People, it doesn’t get much better than that. Somebody has to program this thing on the West Coast.
As a bonus, you don’t even have to be in the Twin Cities to catch this work: Minnesota Public Radio is kindly streaming it live this evening at 8pm Central Time (6pm PST or 9pm EST). Click HERE to enjoy the veritable musical feast.
Wait. That overlaps with tonight’s LA Phil Gershwin broadcast . . . thank goodness for TiVo.
- George Gershwin: Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary Composer Biographies
- Brian Ciach: Courtesy of Indiana University