This May, the San Luis Obispo Symphony celebrates an American master.
George Gershwin — the visionary composer behind “An American in Paris,” “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Porgy and Bess” — is at the center of the fifth and final concert in this season’s Classics in the Cohan series.
On May 6, Korean piano virtuoso Ji will join the symphony, led by Utah Symphony Orchestra associate conductor and pianist Rei Hotoda, to perform a new critical edition of Gershwin’s Concerto in F. It’s a rare chance to hear a version that hews close to the composer’s original vision.
“It’s just so exciting for me ... to work with people who are so dedicated to bringing Gershwin to the forefront,” said Hotoda, one of five finalists vying to replace Michael Nowak as San Luis Obispo Symphony music director.
The symphony’s season finale will kick off with Aaron Copland’s “An Outdoor Overture” and close with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. But the centerpiece of the concert is Gershwin’s Concerto in F.
Composed in 1925, the concerto represents “Gershwin’s furthest foray into orchestral art music,” said Timothy Freeze, who researched and edited the piece as part of The Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “It never ended up getting the fame of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or ‘An American in Paris,’ but it was among the most ambitious of Gershwin’s symphonic scores.”
“He wanted to make a statement that this was his approach to the art form,” Hotoda said. “At the same time, he never lost his language — bringing the music of his time into the more serious approach to his composition.”
The concerto, commissioned by conductor and director Walter Damrosch, features a number of elements inspired by popular music, such as the use of slapsticks and snare drums played with a wire brush.
“That’s nothing you did in a classical music setting. You did it in a jazz setting,” Freeze said.
“In (terms of) melodic and harmonic language, the piece draws heavily from the blues,” he said, as well as dance music.
When the concerto premiered at New York’s Carnegie Hall in December 1925, “It certainly split the critical establishment,” Freeze said, with some dismissing the work as amateurish while others praised it as genius.
“When Gershwin wrote these works, he was not initially a classical composer. He was a composer of jazz and Broadway music who was then crossing over into the temple of art music,” Freeze said, earning him the skepticism of music critics and academics alike. As such, the composer didn’t receive the same scholarly scrutiny as some of his peers.
Unfortunately, “George passed away before he had a chance to create definitive versions of his orchestral (works),” Freeze said.
“A lot of the scores that conductors and ensembles have been playing over the last half-century were orchestrated and arranged by third-party arrangers,” he explained, and are rife with errors.
That’s where the Gershwin Initiative comes in. A partnership between the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the Gershwin families, it’s an ongoing scholarly examination of the music of Gershwin and his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin.
Managing editor Jessica Getman said the Gershwin Initiative’s primary job is to put together a edition featuring new critical scores and performance parts for the entire Gershwin repertoire. (She and Freeze will give a free talk about that mission at 3 p.m. May 5 at Cal Poly’s Davidson Music Center.) The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition will be published by Schott Music International.
“We would like to have an authoritative version that reflects as much of (the Gershwins’) original vision as possible,” Freeze said, and give the pair the credit they deserve.
“If you walked into a music library there are shelves devoted to critical editions” of works by “important canonical composers,” such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Freeze explained.
“By presenting a critical edition, we’re making the statement that (George) Gershwin belongs in the same pantheon of composers,” Freeze continued. “He’s contributed substantially to our classical musical heritage.”
As the primary editor of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, Freeze worked to create a text derived from sources directly attributed to Gershwin, while documenting interpretations and deviations from the score sanctioned by the composer.
Road-testing the piece is the final step. So far, the revised concerto has been performed by musicians at the University of Michigan and the College of Wooster in Ohio.
The San Luis Obispo Symphony concert will serve as one last review before the concerto is published in 2018.
According to Freeze, audiences can expect a more modernistic concerto “stripped of this romantic sheen it used to have.”
“This is more authentically Gershwin. This is more directly Gershwin,” Freeze said.
“The music becomes fresher. It becomes livelier in a way,” said Getman, a Cal Poly alumna. “You’ll be listening to the concerto and you’ll hear something you didn’t expect. It breathes a lot of life into the performance, and a sense of adventure.”