Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined

Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined

February 12, 1924 was a landmark day for classical music. Bandleader Paul Whiteman had organized a concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall called “An Experiment in Modern Music” to prove that jazz could at least be taken as a serious artform by classical audiences. The program of 23 items was packed with bland arrangements of popular tunes, and might well have flopped had it not been for the penultimate number: George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for piano and jazz band. As soon as the famous clarinet glissando began to soar aloft (improvised in rehearsal and given the green light by the composer), audience members, who had started to leave, returned to their seats to watch the full drama unfold. Led by Gershwin at the piano, the performance was dizzying, exuberant, and energetic, and changed classical music forever. Almost exactly a century on, Rhapsody in Blue still captivates with its grand showtunes, colorful orchestration, and virtuosic piano writing. Inevitably, following the publication of Ferde Grofé’s full-orchestra arrangement alongside a through-written piano part, performances have tended to adhere closely to the score. But for American pianist Lara Downes, Rhapsody in Blue’s improvisatory, free-wheeling nature opened the doors for a new version—one that respected the original score, but which also updated some of its soundscapes to resonate with the here and now. After all, Gershwin referred to his piece as a “kaleidoscope of America,” as Downes explains to Apple Music Classical. “What I always think about is what Gershwin intended, and what he was trying to capture,” she says. “For me, it’s interesting to see the ways in which that is very different 100 years later, but also the ways in which this country is not that different at all. So, it was a question of trying to illustrate his time and our time rolled into one.” To bring this sense of nowness to Gershwin’s music, Downes approached Puerto Rican composer Edmar Colón for a new arrangement that reverberated with the sounds of today—yet one that was still firmly Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined features musicians from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra, and celebrates the global cultures that are now such a major part of America, from the Jamaican rhythms of Downes’ heritage to the dances of Colón’s South America. Colón retains the spirit of the 1924 performance with an orchestral scoring that’s distinctly “big band” while he intersperses Gershwin’s music with passages of entirely new music that symbolizes 21st-century America. There are flashes of Middle Eastern music and nods to Jewish klezmer. And halfway through, a Chinese ensemble starts to play, blending traditional music with the themes from Rhapsody in Blue. “Because the premiere of this version took place in San Francisco,” says Downes, “that’s also the place where we harnessed this traditional Chinese instrument ensemble, because that immigration story is so important in San Francisco.” When Downes tours the work, she explains, the Chinese sounds will be replaced with music from wherever she’s performing. “The idea is that if we’re in Austin, Texas, there’ll be a bluegrass ensemble in that moment.” So, has Rhapsody in Blue Reimagined altered Downes’ view of Gershwin’s 1924 work? “I think that I just have a different relationship with the piece now,” she admits. “When I’m playing it, I never feel like I’m dusting off a warhorse, but I’m also very aware that the audience might be sitting down with the expectation of hearing something that they already know. But I think, yes, just bringing this deeper level of understanding, the piece will change for me.” This EP features a bonus track, Edmar Colón’s blend of Gershwin and Chopin, Study in Blue, for soprano sax and piano. “When Edmar and I got together to really start working on the Rhapsody project,” says Downes, “we were just starting to go through the score, and we got to that section with that big, slow theme. And EEdmar said, ‘Oh, that’s like that Chopin, it’s like the “Tristesse” Etude [Op. 10 No. 3].’ We were laughing that Gershwin had stolen it, and then we realized how beautifully those two melodies interlink.” For Downes, Study in Blue is yet another way of connecting eras, of showing just how much we all have in common, despite the centuries that separate us.

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