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All That Jazz
George Gershwin was already a popular Broadway songwriter by the time his Rhapsody in Blue premiered on February 12, 1924. This revolutionary work exploded onto the music scene and launched the young composer’s star into the stratosphere. Walter Damrosch, the conductor of the New York Symphony, was in the audience for that first performance, and a short time later he approached Gershwin about composing a piano concerto and serving as the work’s first soloist. While it is most likely a legend that Gershwin immediately ran off to purchase a reference book explaining what a concerto is, it is true that he, like many Broadway composers of the time, was very inexperienced in this arena. In fact, Rhapsody in Blue itself was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, another composer whose work appears on this program.
With the Concerto in F, Gershwin was determined to make the work completely his own and prove that Rhapsody in Blue was no accident, though the former work would contribute to the concerto’s success; Gershwin used some of the substantial royalties from Rhapsody in Blue to hire a full orchestra to give the draft concerto a test run. The young composer later reflected that the experience of hearing his concerto played by an orchestra for the first time was the “greatest musical thrill” of his life.
At its premiere on December 3, 1925, George Gershwin’s Concerto in F proved a success. While it didn’t reach the spectacular level of fame that Rhapsody in Blue attained, it did confirm Gershwin’s position as one of the most important American composers of the 20th century. Said Walter Damrosch of the work, “Lady Jazz, adorned with her intriguing rhythms, has danced her way around the world… But for all her travels and her sweeping popularity, she has encountered no knight who could lift her to a level that would enable her to be received as a respectable member of musical circles. George Gershwin seems to have accomplished this miracle. He has done it boldly by dressing this extremely independent and up-to-date young lady in the classic garb of a concerto. Yet he has not detracted one whit from her fascinating personality. He is the Prince who has taken Cinderella by the hand and openly proclaimed her a princess to the astonished world.”
This feat is even more impressive considering the Concerto was written in a span of just five months when Gershwin was a mere 27 years old, and it was only his second concert work. Sadly, the young composer would pass away in 1937 at the age of 38 following surgery to remove a malignant brain tumor, so the world will never know what more he might have achieved.
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