Downey Symphony to play Gershwin's greatest works

George Gershwin.

George Gershwin.

The Jazz Age is coming to Downey on April 6, when the Downey Symphony Orchestra performs the greatest works of that Jazz Age meteor, George Gershwin.

Results of George’s and his brother Ira’s first visit to Paris may be heard at the Downey Theatre, when the Downey Symphony Society presents the grand finale to its 60th anniversary season, “An Evening of Gershwin.” A champagne reception for all attending will be held afterward on the theatre’s patio.

Billed as a tribute to the memory of music-loving Dr. Jacquelin Perry, one of the great stars of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, the evening has many moments which will remind listeners of her. The hero of Gershwin’s great folk-opera “Porgy and Bess” is a crippled man forced to move around in a goat cart. Surely Dr. Perry, the innovative orthopedic surgeon, would have made something of his predicament.

Audiences also know the music of American in Paris from the wildly successful film starring Gene Kelly and introducing Leslie Caron.

Audiences also know the music of American in Paris from the wildly successful film starring Gene Kelly and introducing Leslie Caron.

And the jaunty walking theme which opens the classic “American In Paris” brings memories of Dr. Perry and her pioneer work in gait analysis.

Gershwin was already Mr. Broadway with his popular tunes and his hit song and dance revues when he began to compose his serious symphonic music. That part of his story begins with the question, when is a turn-down a compliment?

When the young George Gershwin went to Paris in 1926 to study, because as he later claimed, his knowledge of music theory at that time “could have fit on a three-cent postage stamp,” one of the greats of the classical world, Maurice Ravel, turned him away, saying, "Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?"

Infectiously optimistic, George went back to the City of Light in 1928 for more serious study. Yet after playing for the noted Nadia Boulanger, she told him she could not teach him. Said Boulanger to Gershwin "What could I give you that you haven't already got?" George’s American teacher had already proclaimed, “The boy is a genius.”

Gershwin wrote the initial version of “An American in Paris,” "a rhapsodic ballet" as he called it, as a thank-you note to Paris. But he didn’t make it easy to perform. The initial notes, sounds that Gershwin remembered from crossing the busy Place de la Concorde, are taxi horns in A flat and B flat. Says Downey Symphony’s Music Director Sharon Lavery, “finding authentic pitched taxi horns can definitely be a challenge. Lucky for us, our principal timpanist, Danielle Squires, owns her own set, so we rent them from her.”

In his ode to Paris, Gershwin pours out the feelings of an American visitor “strolling about the city, listening to the various street noises, and absorbing the French atmosphere.” After that opening with taxi horns, oboe, and English horns, comes the homesickness theme, with bluesy rhythms and syncopated jazz. Listen for the saxophones, trumpets, and snare drums. The end recapitulates the jaunty walking theme again. Dr. Perry and her gait studies again.

The opera “Porgy and Bess” marks Gershwin’s peak in his most ambitious and complex piece of musical artistry. But critics weren’t sure: is it opera or Broadway musical? The music combines popular music of the day with a strong influence of African-American music and techniques typical of opera, such as recitative, through-composition and an extensive system of leitmotifs.

Even "Summertime, " "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" are some of the most refined and ingenious of Gershwin's compositions. “I love all the syncopation,” said Lavery. “To me, it’s what makes Gershwin’s music so great.”

Critics didn’t know what to make of it in 1935, but it has become an American classic. “Porgy and Bess” contains some of Gershwin's most sophisticated music, including a fugue, a passacaglia, the use of atonality, polytonality and polyrhythm.

A year after it was first performed, Gershwin himself took the most symphonic parts to make the Porgy and Bess Orchestral Suite, which is what Downey audiences will hear. And here is where the Downey Symphony shines.

“One of the things I will be getting.” said Lavery, conductor as well as musical director, “with a Symphony Orchestra as opposed to a stage orchestra, is that lush, rich orchestral sound with the full set of strings, especially in the slower, more expressive sections.”

“Incidentally,” said Lavery, “those slower, lyrical sections are some of my favorites because it calls for lots of ‘rubato’, meaning there’s freedom in the phrasing… lots of pushing and pulling with the music (faster then suddenly slower, then suddenly faster again, etc.)”

“My guess,” Lavery continued, “is that not only did Gershwin want to cut down the opera because it was too long (four hours long!), but he was confident as to how great some of the orchestral music was, not just the songs. He was always sensitive about the critics who doubted his abilities as a composer, and I’m sure he wanted to prove his talents as a composer with this great orchestral score.”

Even before Porgy and American in Paris, a new era in American music had opened, in a 1924 concert in New York’s Aeolian Hall. Commencing with the first low trill of the solo clarinet and its spine-tingling run up the scale, “Rhapsody in Blue” caught the public’s fancy. It starts with the outrageous cadenza of the clarinet, the now-famous two-and-a-half octave glissando that makes “Rhapsody in Blue” as instantly recognizable as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

“Rhapsody in Blue” challenged notions regarding the divide between classical and popular music. Its relatively free-form structure broke with symphonic traditions; and it combined freshness and originality with an irresistible accessibility. Few other purely instrumental works of its length so successfully grab the attention of even uninitiated listeners from its first note to its last.

But it almost didn’t happen. After a late night and still up and playing pool with brother Ira, Gershwin was astonished to learn in the morning paper that in five weeks Paul Whitman was introducing a new jazz concert, “An Experiment in Modern Music,” in front of all the big-wigs of the musical world – featuring a piece composed by himself. But he hadn’t written it yet.

The main theme of “Rhapsody in Blue” was then composed on the train from New York to Boston. “It was on the train,” George said, “with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating to a composer (I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise) that I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody from beginning to end. …I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had the definite plot of the piece.”

“As for the middle theme,” Gershwin said, “it came upon me suddenly, as my music sometimes does. It was at the home of a friend, just after I got back to Gotham…. rattling away at the piano without a thought of rhapsodies in blue or any other color. All at once I heard myself playing a theme that must have been haunting me inside, seeking outlet. No sooner had it oozed out of my fingers than I knew I had found it… A week after my return from Boston I completed the Rhapsody in Blue.”

Gershwin then had to work quickly, sketching out the ensemble parts of the piece at the piano, then handing over the score to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger, who orchestrated it. Thanks to their team effort, the band’s parts were ready in time, but the solo piano part was not yet on paper. It existed only in the composer’s mind.

After feverish weeks of writing, on February 12, 1924, the 25-year old George Gershwin, then known only as a composer of Broadway songs, seated himself at the piano to accompany the orchestra in the performance of a brand new piece of his own composition, improvising his own piano part during the world premiere.

Bernadene Blaha. Photo by Karen Knauer, courtesy Downey Symphony.

Bernadene Blaha. Photo by Karen Knauer, courtesy Downey Symphony.

Internationally acclaimed Bernadene Blaha will take Gershwin’s place at the piano for Downey.

“In Bernadene we have a wonderful soloist for the Rhapsody,” said Sharon. “When the orchestra accompanies any soloists, my concern is always the balance of sound. It’s easy for the orchestra to get swept up by the beauty of the music and then become too loud, overpowering the soloist. Luckily, the professional musicians of the Downey Symphony rarely fall into this trap because they are so experienced in accompanying soloists, having done it for so long.”

“Regarding a personal insight” said Lavery, “Gershwin’s music is like Mahler’s music, in that he is very particular with his markings of articulations, dynamics and other musical instructions. There is never a doubt knowing what he wants with his music, so as a conductor I try not to ‘over interpret.’ My feeling is that if you simply play what he asks for in his writing you are doing justice to his music.”

“I think the orchestra members would agree,” said Lavery, “that it’s hard to pick a favorite. I will say that, for me, there may be a slight edge to Rhapsody in Blue, but that’s only because I have been playing that opening glissando on the clarinet ever since I was in high school!”

In 1984, sixty years after its premiere, 84 white-laquered Kimball grand pianos played the Rhapsody at the Los Angeles Olympics. Six technicians tuned all 84 pianos to concert pitch on July 27, the day before the opening ceremony. The next day, all 84 pianists rose on platforms in the peristyle end of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum playing ''Rhapsody in Blue.'' United Airline, the official carrier for the Games, paid $300,000 annually to play it in its TV Ads. Broadway George Gershwin would have loved it.

Tickets for the Concert at the Downey Theatre April 6 are still available at the Downey Theatre box office or at downeysymphony.org. Ample free parking, and doors open at 6:30 pm for the Downey Art Coalition’s art show in the lobby. Pre-concert talk by Sharon Lavery begins at 7:15 pm.