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November 13, 2009

Marin Alsop, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Baltimore Symphony deliver uncommon versions of Gershwin

A big story — maybe the biggest — in classical music over the past 30 years or so is the historical authenticity movement, the attempt to re-create the sounds and playing styles of distant times. This obsession generated a revolution in the approach to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and other pre-20th century composers. It’s less common to find advocates for going “authentic” with post-20th century repertoire, although there certainly are opportunities ripe for re-thinking.

Personally, I’d love to see more attention paid to the way the works of Mahler, for example, were performed during, or closer to, his own day. That might have added an extra dimension last week, when Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Fourth. But Alsop is taking quite an interesting spin on the authenticity approach with the BSO’s current program, devoted totally to Gershwin and showcasing the superb French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

As it turns out, this presentation raises vexing questions about the whole historic reclamation business. It’s one thing to return to the original scoring for Gershwin’s most celebrated instrumental piece, “Rhapsody in Blue.” But what about reviving an orchestration of the Concerto in F that Gershwin didn’t prepare or approve, but was written by the same guy who did that first version of the “Rhapsody”? Where’s an ethicist when you really need one?

The story of the “Rhapsody”

is well known. Gershwin had only a few weeks to create something for the “Experiment in Modern Music” concert in 1924 given by Paul Whiteman’s band in New York, so the composer gladly accepted the help of Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé.

The result was a brilliantly lean, yet very colorful, orchestration — lots of woodwinds and brass, banjo, bass, an extra piano, percussion, and about 10 violins. Grofé subsequently prepared a symphonic orchestration of the “Rhapsody,” with all the usual strings, the version most often encountered.

In 1925, when Gershwin was commissioned to write a concerto, he felt comfortable enough to do the orchestration himself, and did so with flair, fashioning a full tonal fabric to support the solo piano. Three years later, Whiteman asked Grofé to prepare a jazz orchestra version of the Concerto in F, with more or less the same instrumental configuration of that first “Rhapsody.” Gershwin reportedly took offense.

Alsop recorded Grofé’s long-forgotten 1928 arrangement almost 20 years ago, and she has returned to it now, with enthusiastic support from Thibaudet. Hearing this version of the concerto on the same evening as the “Rhapsody” in its original guise makes for a fascinating experience.

On Thursday night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, it was easy to accept both pieces as “authentic,” at least in the sense of capturing a 1920s jazz flavor. (The program is repeated tonight and Sunday at Meyerhoff, Saturday at Strathmore.) The “Rhapsody” always seems more real in the first version, anyway, especially when it reaches the big, lyrical theme, which can sound too syrupy in the lusher orchestration.

And the keyboard solo can emerge with a more spontaneous quality when heard against the jazz orchestra, which was the case Thursday as Thibaudet charged into the “Rhapsody” with an almost giddy, even reckless energy. Some notes disappeared in the blur when the pianist hit warp-speed, but the playing was otherwise as precise as it was fresh and instinctive.

Alsop offered tight support, but did not always get as much snap out of the ensemble as the pianist was producing. Steven Barta delivered the famous sliding clarinet solo with panache. (Purists will note that there were more violins onstage than the Whiteman band used for the 1924 premiere, so this wasn't an exercise in total historic authenticty.)

Thibaudet proved equally impressive in the concerto, phrasing with an ease that reflected his own longtime embrace of jazz, and with a refined sense of lyricism for the work’s more tender side. The pianist enjoyed supple collaboration from Alsop and a vivid complement of players. Andrew Balio shaped the trumpet solo in the Adagio warmly.

The effect of the Grofé orchestration was striking, especially the slightly dissonant rumbles in the opening pages of the first movement (taking the place of the snare drum rolls Gershwin used in his orchestration), and the sensual spice of saxophones.

It can be argued that the Grofé arrangement undercuts the whole point of the concerto, which was one of Gershwin’s most important demonstrations of how the symphonic idiom could be fused with jazz. Without the full orchestra sound he conceived, it’s a very different piece. But, heck, it’s still a great one, and it’s fun hearing this alternative.

Issues of authenticity are not involved with the composer’s “I Got Rhythm” Variations. There is only one version (as far as I know), and it’s all Gershwin. It’s a slight work, but full of sparkling color. Thibaudet, Alsop and company gave it an effective performance.

The BSO rounded the evening off with the overtures to two great Gershwin musicals, “Girl Crazy” and “Of Thee I Sing.” Alsop had both of them flowing brightly — and sounding thoroughly authentic.

At the start of the evening, BSO president Paul Meecham saluted violinist Edward Patey and trumpeter Edward Hoffman for their decades of service to the orchestra. Both will retire at the end of the year.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:33 PM | | Comments (2)


Thanks very much for your informative article. You were correct in pointing out that Gershwin's orchestration of his piano concerto was superior to the later re-orchestration by Grofé. While it might be interesting to perform the Grofé version now and then, the zest and grandeur of the piece comes from Gershwin's hand.

Thanks for commenting. Given that the Grofe version has only had one recording previously (almost 20 years ago), I think it's cool to have another, especially with Thibaudet. But this arrangement will remain, as Alsop noted in the story I ran a couple days ago, an alternative, not a replacement. TIM

Tim, I agree that the Whiteman/Grofe version is a curiousity -- I'm very glad to have heard it. At home, I played the Gershwin version and found it very different and undoubtedly better. But I think the Gershwin discography can stand this alternate version -- perhaps not the version first recorded by Whiteman and later in the 80s.
For Whiteman/Grofe made cuts --they recorded on 78s and side lengths were important.
As Alsop said from the stage on Friday to a packed house this version is being heard for the first time - she had a
composer from the Cabrillo festival restore the cuts and put together what Whiteman would have recorded if he lived in the LP era. This new version is put together from archival material.
It's true that Gershwin didn't like Grofe's orchestration -- perhaps not the right word as Whiteman didn't have a symphony orchestra to perform and record with - Grofe had no choice. But the work did get recorded for the first time.
But, I agree that this new version raises some very difficult questions.

There was a re-creation of the 1924 Aeolian Hall concert done in the early '80s that shed fascinating light on what the Whiteman sound was for the 'Rhapsody' (Ivan Davis was the excellent pianist). And I think it gives a good indication of what was in store a few years later for the Concerto arrangement. The cool thing about the BSO program was the chance to hear both pieces at their jazziest. (I could detect no big differences between Alsop's 1993 recording of the Grofe version of the Concerto and these performances, by the way, but I'm sure many details were clarified in the process of preparing the parts.) TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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