Rhapsody in Blue almost didn't happen

December 5, 2018 | Festival Boca

In late 1923, band leader Paul Whiteman decided to commission a classical-jazz fusion (piano and orchestra) to be performed at an "experimental American music" concert in February the following year, and he asked George Gershwin to compose it (the two had collaborated before). But Gershwin declined, saying there would not be enough time to compose and revise the piece. 

But then, on January 4, 1924, the New York Tribune ran an article about the February concert that said, "George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite." Sandbagged, Gershwin called Whiteman and found out that one of Whiteman's competitors was planning to steal his idea of an experimental American music concert. So Gershwin agreed and five weeks of frenetic activity ensued.

Later, Gershwin told his biographer how he was inspired by a train ride from Boston to New York:

"It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise.... And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end."

Rhapsody in BlueThe composition and orchestration was completed with just eight days to spare before the February 12 premiere, and an amazing cast of musical luminaries were in the audience, including Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Leopold Stokowski and John Philip Sousa. The piece was the second to last on the program and the audience was getting impatient with all the experimental music (and the fact that the ventilation system was broken). But as soon as the music started (with the now-familiar clarinet glissando and Gershwin improvising the opening piano solo), a new page in history was written. The piece went on to become wildly popular – the first recording selling over a million copies.

Festival Boca will present Rhapsody in Blue: An Evening of Orchestral Favorites, on Saturday, March 2 at 7:30 pm. At the piano will be Shelly Berg, "one of the finest pianists around in the early 21st century playing modern mainstream jazz.” And The SYMPHONIA will be conducted by Festival Boca Music Director Constantine Kitsopoulos. Other pieces on the program include Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole, Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, and Gershwin's I've Got Rhythm.

Shelly BergBerg, a South Floridian, is a Steinway piano artist and multi-Grammy nominated arranger and producer. His recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” and other Gershwin selections with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will soon be released worldwide by Universal Music Group.

© Festival of The Arts BOCA 2019

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