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Riffing on Gershwin Program Notes

Riffing on Gershwin Program Notes

Program Notes for Riffing on Gershwin
©2021 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin

Piano Concerto in F
– George Gershwin

Born (Jacob Gershowitz) on December 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York.
Died on July 11, 1937, in Hollywood, California.

This work was premiered on December 3, 1925, at Carnegie Hall by the New York Symphony under the baton of Walter Damrosch with Gershwin was the soloist. The work is scored for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, bells, xylophone, triangle, and strings.

George Gershwin was a first generation American of Russian-Jewish parents. By his late teens, he had learned the piano and became a “song-plugger’ in New York’s Tin Pan Alley—the area where the popular music publishing trade was centered. Gershwin would sit at the piano in the Remick Music Corporation showroom playing the latest sheet music for customers. From this experience, Gershwin became keenly aware of popular musical styles and began to compose his own songs, often with his younger brother Ira as lyricist. Over the course of just eight years, the Gershwins became established as the leading figures on Broadway.

It was this background that George Gershwin brought with him when he decided to write works for the concert hall. Beginning with a grand experiment in 1924 that brought the world his Rhapsody in Blue as a work in the jazz idiom but for the concert hall (originally for piano solo with a jazz band expanded with violins). The year after his success with the Rhapsody, Gershwin decided to write a more extensive piece for piano and orchestra. The result was the Concerto in F—a work steeped in the traditional form of the Romantic concerto but peppered with jazz elements throughout.

Gershwin wrote about the Concerto in F:

“The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettle drums, supported by other percussion instruments, and with a Charleston motif introduced by the bassoon, horns, clarinets, and violas. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano.

“The second movement has a poetic, nocturnal atmosphere, which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated.

“The final movement reverts to the same style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.”

The orchestration of the Concerto was troublesome for Gershwin. During the composition of the Concerto, Gershwin felt unsure of his abilities as an orchestrator and eventually hired a group to give a private reading so he could check his work. The work was premiered on December 3, 1925, and Gershwin would play it six more times in the next few months. Three years later, Whiteman took the work on tour but decided to trim down Gershwin’s orchestration from one hundred players to a more manageable traveling ensemble. Whiteman called in Ferde Grofé to produce the smaller orchestration that is regularly heard today.

Marcus Roberts presents a reworking of Gershwin’s original. The orchestra parts are pure Grofé, but Roberts has expanded the solo sections to include his trio—piano, bass, and drums. The results are astounding in their virtuosity, in their integrity to Gershwin’s style, and to the concerto itself. George Gershwin was usually willing to allow different interpretations of his songs and symphonic compositions, and it seems almost certain that he would have relished in this fresh interpretation.

Symphony No. 1 in E minor
– Florence Price

Born April 9, 1887, in Little Rock, Arkansas
Died June 3, 1953, in Chicago, Illinois

This work was premiered on June 15, 1933, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Frederick Stock. It is scored for two piccolos, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, and strings.

Born in 1887 in a racially integrated neighborhood in Little Rock, Florence Price (born Florence Smith) was the daughter of a dentist who enjoyed a happy childhood. She was precocious as a musician and had her first piece published at age 12. She was valedictorian of her senior class at Capitol Hill School at age 16. It was a big step for a young African American teenager to move to Boston and study at the New England Conservatory, one of the few prestigious music schools in the country to accept students without regard to race, but she jumped at the opportunity. In Boston she studied with the illustrious composer George Whitefield Chadwick and earned her degree in 1907. A few years after returning home, she was offered the directorship of the music department of Clark University in Atlanta where she stayed until 1912. She returned to Little Rock and married the attorney Thomas Jewell Price, but found that the racial climate was becoming unbearable with lynchings becoming commonplace.

In 1927 the Prices moved to Chicago where Florence would spend the rest of her life. Almost immediately after moving, she filed for divorce from Thomas—an especially independent and bold action for the time. This was a period of great musical growth for Price, as she enrolled in the American Conservatory of Music and Chicago Musical College. She signed a publishing contract with G. Schirmer. To make ends meet, she composed radio jingles and played organ to accompany silent movies. She wrote orchestrations for WGN Radio and even composed popular songs under the pen name Vee Jay.

Her big break came in 1939 when soprano Marian Anderson, who mounted an historic Lincoln Memorial concert after she had been denied the use of Washington’s Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution because of her race, performed Price’s setting of the spiritual, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord.” The gravity of that appearance is celebrated to this day. Price lived the rest of her life in Chicago and was well known in her time as the first black female composer to garner national attention, but after her death in 1953, her music faded from memory.

A recent development has led to a resurgence in interest in and performances of her music. In 2009 Vicki and Darrell Gatwood purchased a long-vacant home in St. Anne, Illinois, just north of Chicago. During renovations, they found several abandoned papers. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that these were music manuscripts bearing the name of Florence Price. They did an internet search and learned of Price’s importance and that her manuscripts are housed in the archives of the University of Arkansas. Feeling duty-bound to preserve the papers, they contacted the archives and arranged for them to be examined. They had no way of knowing that they had discovered a wealth of musicological treasure, including the manuscripts of Price’s two violin concertos and her Symphony No. 4.

Price’s orchestral music was ignored by many important conductors. She composed four symphonies of which three survive, two of which were only recently published. She wrote in a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, “To begin with I have two handicaps—those of sex and race. I am a woman, and I have some Negro blood in my veins … I would like to be judged on merit alone.” Just like the others, Koussevitzky, famed conductor of the Boston Symphony, did not program her works. However, one conductor was pleased to showcase her talent—Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1932 Price submitted a handful of works to Chicago’s Wanamaker Music Contest. All of them received accolades, but her First Symphony took top honors. In the 1890s, composer Antonín Dvořák declared that the United States had all the makings of a great national musical tradition in the songs of Native and African Americans. Price’s style, although somewhat conservative, is always inventive. Her orchestration is interesting and new. Her symphony is modeled after Dvořák’s famous Symphony No. 9 in E minor, “From the New World.”

No doubt the prize committee recognized these features, which also appealed to Stock. He programmed the work on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s June 15, 1933, program at the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress Exhibition entitled “The Negro in Music.” Works by John Alden Carpenter, Roland Hayes, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Harry T. Burleigh also appeared on this historic program.

Price’s Symphony No. 1 opens with a murmur in the strings with a soft bassoon melody that passes throughout the woodwind section and is developed at length. Dvořák’s influence is pervasive, but the result is undoubtedly American and firmly in traditional form. A gentler second section unfolds as a bucolic interlude before the exposition repeats. Price provides a masterfully development section using all the thematic material of the exposition. The recapitulation is nothing short of triumphant. A brief coda begins with percussion and ends with a brilliant flourish.

The second movement features creative brass ensemble writing at the opening. Price features woodwinds and strings in music that is suggestive of, but not derivative of Dvořák’s second movement. Like the Czech master, she uses an original hymn tune.

Price’s third movement is a lively dance reminiscent of the West African Juba with its syncopations and repeated patterns. She provides several delightful surprises, including an imitation of the banjo by the brass section.

The finale is even more raucous with hemiola patterns between the brass and strings. It opens with a delightful fiddle tune. Contrasting sections come and go, and many instruments are given solo turns. However, different versions of the main theme are heard throughout. While the finale is in a bright major key, Price reminds us at the end that this work is in E minor.

©2021 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin

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