ON THE RECORD: Revisiting a "Rhapsody" with Gershwin and Copeland's "Rodeo"

News   ON THE RECORD: Revisiting a "Rhapsody" with Gershwin and Copeland's "Rodeo"
This week's column examines new recordings from Naxos of concert works by George Gershwin (including "Rhapsody in Blue," "Concerto in F" and the "Second Rhapsody") and Aaron Copland (including Rodeo).

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Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue [Naxos]
Gershwin: Concerto in F [Naxos]
Gershwin has been on our minds, of late; George turns 115 next month, by the calendar anyway. Naxos, the impressively far-reaching classical label with what they term "consumer-friendly prices," has taken the occasion to give us two new CDs which, combined, offer most of Gershwin's symphonic work.

I don't know about you, but I've been listening to numerous performances of the Rhapsodies, the Concerto, and the others for years; some on LP, most on CD. From time to time I've been on overload, although for the last year or so I've been back in a Gershwin mood. New recordings of new performances have both disadvantages and advantages. The Naxos CDs start off with a distinct advantage: they are modern-day recordings, with the instruments clear and audible in a way that some of the earlier performances are (understandably) not. If the playing isn't good, this is not necessarily an advantage. But the present musicians, soloists and conductor do a fine job, leaving me quite happy.

The recordings in question come from conductor Jo Ann Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The more recent of the two features is "Rhapsody in Blue," which Gershwin wrote in 1924. At the time, he was just another Kern follower, not far removed from his days as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger. He already had one hit to his credit, the 1919 "Swanee," plus a moderate success in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise." But Gershwin was not the Gershwin of legend until Feb. 12, 1924, when modern American music was distinctly shaken up by the Rhapsody and Gershwin became an instant celebrity. In June of that year he wrote his next durable song, "Somebody Loves Me," and Lady Be Good — the first hit Gershwin musical, starring Adele and Fred Astaire — opened in December (bringing along "Fascinating Rhythm," "Oh, Lady Be Good" and "The Man I Love"). At the start of 1924, George was just another promising composer. By New Year's Eve, he was top-of-the-heap.

Gershwin was not prepared for, nor looking for, a symphonic career. With "Rhapsody" as entry, though, opportunities arose — and he was always one to rise to a challenge. His other major concert works were "Concerto in F" (1925) and "An American in Paris" (1928), which is not included on the two Naxos CDs. The composer's fame made him a popular attraction as a concert soloist, so he put together a few additional items suitable for personal appearances.

In 1930, Gershwin wrote an extended piece of incidental music for the Hollywood film "Delicious." The material, which represented a noisy Manhattan street scene, was mostly cut. Rather than leaving it in scraps, the composer decided to turn it into a symphonic piece, originally called "Rhapsody in Rivets." (The rhythmic sounds of drilling and construction are prominent.) Gershwin called the finished version the "Second Rhapsody," in a bid to tie it in with his first "Rhapsody." This didn't work, and the piece, which was introduced at Symphony Hall in Boston in 1932, with George at the piano, was more or less overlooked for decades. I myself like it enormously.

Like "An American in Paris," the 1932 "Cuban Overture" came from a trip abroad; Gershwin packed his steamer trunk with souvenir Parisian taxi horns for the first and a collection of native Cuban percussion instruments for the other. I am quite partial to this "Cuban Overture," perhaps because I've heard it far less frequently than the "big three." For a 1934 concert tour celebrating the tenth anniversary of the "Rhapsody," Gershwin threw together a nine-minute string of "I Got Rhythm" variations, which are quite atmospheric.

His final concert work was "Suite from Porgy and Bess," which premiered (with George at the piano) at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia in Jan. 1936 — just four days before the opera itself closed at the Alvin in New York. The score disappeared altogether after Gershwin's death in 1937, as a result of which a second such Porgy piece — Russell Bennett's 1942 Symphonic Picture — became the standard. Gershwin's version was discovered in storage in 1958, at which point Ira renamed it "Catfish Row" to avoid confusion with Bennett's piece. I decidedly prefer "Catfish Row," as George constructed it from his original orchestrations for the opera. Porgy fans should note that it includes the deleted "Jazzbo Brown" piano solo, with which Gershwin intended to open the opera as a lead-in to "Summertime."

"Rhapsody in Blue," featuring Orion Weiss on piano and John Fullam on clarinet, is paired with "Catfish Row" on the newer of the two releases. Also included are two minor pieces. "Promenade" is another piece of film work, derived from the "Walking the Dog" sequence in the 1937 Fred Astaire film "Shall We Dance?" This was arranged into a piece for orchestra and solo clarinet back around 1960 by Sol Berkowitz. It has been newly adapted for this recording, and not effectively so. Also included is the "Strike Up the Band" Overture devised and orchestrated by Don Rose in 1976.

The other disc is headed by, and entitled, "Concerto in F." Also included are the "Second Rhapsody" and the "I Got Rhythm" Variations, with Orion Weiss again serving as piano soloist. These are not the altogether finest recordings of the works that I have ever heard, perhaps, but they are high on the list and most welcome.

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Copland: Rodeo (Complete Ballet) [Naxos]
At the same time, Naxos and its "American Classics" series have brought us a new recording of Aaron Copland's grand 1942 ballet, Rodeo. I have been listening to Leonard Slatkin's 1986 recording of the piece (paired with the earlier Copland ballet, Billy the Kid) since — well, since 1986. A quarter century later we have Slatkin once again, this time with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Both performances are wonderful; this one seems slightly more raffish, to me, and is thus favored.

Rodeo was the child of Agnes de Mille, created for the "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo" when they were displaced to the United States during World War II. For this American-themed cowboy ballet, she selected Copland by virtue of his Billy the Kid. Rodeo was an even bigger success, opening at the Metropolitan Opera House Oct. 16, 1942; de Mille herself danced the lead role of the tomboy Cowgirl.

While Copland himself never reached Broadway, Rodeo had an outsized influence on what was to come. Broadway had been a dire experience for de Mille thus far; she had been fired from two major musicals, apparently for being a combination of argumentative and modernistic. One look at Rodeo, though, convinced Rodgers and Hammerstein and The Theatre Guild to hire her for their upcoming cowboy musical, Oklahoma! What might have been just another musical comedy turned into something more when they allowed de Mille to provide a full scale dramatic ballet as opposed to typical show dances.

Hammerstein's idea for the spot was to give Laurey a big circus dream, but de Mille argued that girls don't dream about circuses, they dream about sex — and thus came "Laurey Makes up Her Mind," the psycho-sexual ballet in which Laurey imagines a life with Curly disrupted by the fearsome Jud. Rodgers, as it happened, had already written a full cowboy ballet of his own, long before Rodeo (and also for the Ballet Russe). "Ghost Town" opened at the Met in 1939, choreographed by Marc Platt — who later originated the role of Dream Curly in de Mille's Oklahoma! ballet.

Rodeo is performed here in the full, five-movement version. (For the more frequently heard Symphonic Version, Copland cut the dance hall-sounding "Ranch House Party" movement). It is accompanied by two matching favorites, "El Salón Mexico" and "Danzón Cubano." All are extremely well-played by Slatkin and his friends from Detroit. Also included is the lesser-known Dance Panels. This was a 1959 Jerry Robbins ballet, only Robbins decided — during rehearsals — to cut out Copland altogether and do it without music. Moves, "a ballet in silence about relationships," never got very far; neither did "Dance Panels," which is not something I need to hear again. But Slatkin's new recording of Rodeo has already replaced the version on my iPod.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes" as well as “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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