The Stories Behind the Music for the Jazz-inspired RI Philharmonic Orchestra first concert with Maestro Bramwell Tovey, Oct. 19 and 20

About the concert for RI Philharmonic Orchestra featuring
Maestro Bramwell Tovey and Piano soloist Aaron Diehl

TACO Classical concert is on Saturday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m. at The VETS
Amica Rush Hour concert is on Friday, Oct. 19, at 6:30 p.m. at The Vets

***At a Glance***

Rhapsody in Blue
TACO Classical Concert
Saturday, October 20, 8 p.m.

Maestro Bramwell Tovey, Artistic Advisor
Aaron Diehl, piano
GERSHWIN: Cuban Overture, Rhapsody in Blue and I Got Rhythm Variations
HINDEMITH: Kammermusik No.1 and Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

Rhapsody in Blue
Amica Rush Hour concert
Friday, October 19, 6:30 p.m.

Maestro Bramwell Tovey, Artistic Advisor
GERSHWIN: Cuban Overture, Rhapsody in Blue and I Got Rhythm Variations
Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

Stories behind the music

Works by GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898—1937)
Cuban Overture

In early 1932, George Gershwin spent a short holiday in Cuba. While there, he heard a great deal of native music. Rhumba bands even serenaded him under his hotel window. The trip gave him a new idea for a symphonic composition based on Cuban dance rhythms (notably the rhumba) and employing native percussion instruments. After his return to New York, Gershwin spent about three weeks composing his new piece and another eight days orchestrating it. Under its first title, Rhumba, the work premiered as part of the world’s first all-Gershwin concert at Lewisohn Stadium on August 16, 1932. The next winter, Gershwin renamed the music with the following explanation: “When people read Rhumba they expect the ‘Peanut Vendor’ or a like piece of music. Cuban Overture gives a more just idea of the character and intent of the music.”

Cuban Overture was composed as a four-section form. The first section is rhythmically charged and festive. The second is slower and seductive. In the third, the theme integrates a Spanish scale with Gershwin’s characteristic “blue” notes. (We might think of this as “an American in Cuba” theme.) In the closing section, the opening material returns to propel the overture to a bustling climax. Gershwin’s original conductor’s score showed that in front of the podium should be positioned traditional Cuban instruments including a Cuban stick, bongos, gourd and maracas.

Rhapsody in Blue

Toward the end of 1923, fashionable band leader Paul Whiteman told Gershwin of his plans to mount a concert of jazz and jazz-inspired music early the next year. At the time, Gershwin may have casually mentioned an interest in composing a piece for piano and orchestra, but he was busy completing the score to the musical Sweet Little Devil and gave the matter no further thought for the moment. So, it came as a surprise when the New York Herald Tribune on January 4, 1924, announced that the Whiteman concert (now scheduled for February 12) would include a “jazz concerto” by Gershwin. Gershwin called Whiteman, who succeeded in convincing the composer to commit himself to the concert. The composer later stated:

“There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz, not to speak of the manifest misunderstandings of its function. Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. Inspired by this aim, I set to work composing with unwonted rapidity.”

It was Gershwin’s brother Ira who suggested the title Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin finished the two-piano version of the Rhapsody in about three weeks. Because of his commitment to Sweet Little Devil and the brief time before Whiteman’s concert, he turned the initial scoring job over to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s orchestrator. This first version was simply for a jazz band and a few strings.

Finally, the night of the concert arrived with a full house and a star-studded audience, and the event began with words:

“Mr. Whiteman intends to point out . . . the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of discordant jazz, which sprang into existence about ten years ago from nowhere in particular, to the really melodious music of today. —Hugh C. Ernst, introductory remarks to the audience

And, that historical moment, playing the Rhapsody in Blue with Gershwin at the piano:

“Somewhere in the middle of the score I began crying. When I came to myself I was 11 pages along, and until this day I cannot tell you how I conducted that far.”–Paul Whiteman

The audience raved and so did most of the critics:

“. . . It [the music] also revealed a genuine melodic gift and a piquant and individual harmonic sense to lend significance to its rhythmic ingenuity. . . . Mr. Gershwin will bear watching; he may yet bring jazz out of the kitchen.”–Deems Taylor

The immediate and lasting popularity of Rhapsody in Blue was nothing less than phenomenal. Two years after its premiere, Gershwin reworked the score for symphony orchestra. That is the version we hear today, as writers continue their choruses of critical praise:

“The Rhapsody in Blue is by no means a consistent or integrated masterwork. . . . But the basic melodic and rhythmic material is so fresh and good, and is presented with such verve and spontaneity, that the work as a whole never loses its ability to excite the listener.”–David Ewen

Variations on I Got Rhythm

The last 1920s-style, razzmatazz musical by George Gershwin and his lyricist-brother Ira was Girl Crazy (1930). Despite the show’s superficiality, it contained wonderful songs, including two great ballads: Embraceable You and But Not for Me.

Ginger Rogers starred in the show, but cast member Ethel Merman, making her Broadway debut, stole it. She introduced the world to Gershwin’s immortal song, I Got Rhythm, which became one of the composer’s personal favorites.

Gershwin’s piano variations on the famous song were composed mostly during a winter vacation in Florida in 1933. Ostensibly, this was also a trip to the South to collect local color to inspire the composer to begin composing Porgy and Bess. He spent three weeks at work on the Variations in Palm Beach, returning to New York early in January. There he quickly orchestrated his new piece in time for an all-Gershwin tour beginning in mid-February. The finishing touch was the dedication, “To my brother Ira.”

When Gershwin later performed the Variations on the radio, he gave his listeners this brief but inimitable description of it: “After the introduction by the orchestra, the piano plays the theme rather simply. The first variation is a very complicated rhythmic pattern played by the piano while the orchestra takes the theme. The next variation is in waltz time. The third is a Chinese variation in which I imitate Chinese flutes played out of tune, as they always are. Next the piano plays the rhythmic variation in which the left hand plays the melody upside down and the right hand plays it straight, on the theory that you shouldn’t let one hand know what the other is doing. Then comes the finale.”

Works by PAUL HINDEMITH (1895—1963)
Kammermusik No.1 (Op. 24, No.1)

Most of us are accustomed to the style of Paul Hindemith’s most familiar compositions of the 1930s-1950s, such as the Mathis der Maler symphony or the many sonatas for orchestral and keyboard instruments. These were the works of Hindemith’s maturity, and they follow his closely worked out theories of composition in a consistent, sometimes even predictable, manner. Yet there was once a younger, more volatile Hindemith. That was the composer who, around 1922, leaped to prominence as the most important young musician in post-war Germany. His singular personality could easily be identified in his music even then, but his music was more eclectic, spontaneous and adventurous than later. It was in a style spiced with dissonance and formal experiments, which elicited both admiration and harsh criticism.

Among the most important music of this period was his series of three Kammermusik (chamber music) works for chamber orchestra. The first of these was composed in 1922. Its four relatively short contrasting movements give us important insight into the young, developing composer. The first movement, marked “Very fast and wild,” is just that. Its relentless, frenetic repetitions and blaring tone colors might portray new-found emotions in the new age of the 1920s. The second movement is a satirical march, perhaps demonstrating the rebellious new freedom of expression of the time. Third comes a slow-moving quartet of woodwinds playing seriously and reflectively (for a welcome change). The music is expressive and reflective, but not in the manner of 19th-century Romantics. Hindemith gives us something new and original. For the last movement, the composer sardonically quotes a tune of popular music from that year. Now we are back in the wild world of the first movement. Keys change rapidly and unpredictably. The rapid background music at times becomes more important than the melodies. In fact, sometimes (especially when the piano is featured) melodies are nearly indistinguishable. Hammered percussion captures our attention much of the time until a solo trumpet brings the work to a rather crazy close.

Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

In 1940, the year Hindemith settled in the United States, he began work on a group of sketches for a ballet that Léonide Massine was to have choreographed. However, choreographer and composer had a falling out, and Hindemith pulled out of the project. Three years later, the composer formed his sketches into the Symphonic Metamorphosis. The new work, which became one of Hindemith’s most popular orchestral works, was premiered in January 1944 by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, receiving immediate critical acclaim.

In his review, Olin Downes proclaimed Hindemith’s piece to be “one of the most entertaining scores that he has thus far given us, a real jeu d’esprit by a great master of his medium in a singularly happy mood.”

The themes Hindemith chose are not well-known, nor are they necessarily among Weber’s best. However, perhaps those are good reasons for Hindemith’s broad and often humorous handling of them. All the themes come from a piano duet collection by Weber.

The rakish Allegro, with which the work opens, features the large woodwind section by pitting it against the brass or strings. A Turandot Scherzo movement follows. The theme for this came from a Weber overture, but its chinoiserie betrays its Asian origin sifted through an 18th- century transcription, where Weber discovered it. Eight variations lead to a climax, but Hindemith cannot resist adding a fugue—at first for brass, then woodwinds, then percussion, and finally full orchestra.

The simple Andantino is a tranquil siciliano with a virtuosic passage (like a Baroque double) for flute at the end. This leads to the concluding Marsch, in which Hindemith for a time is true to his model. However, before long he transforms Weber’s material in the witty spirit of the work, leading to a powerful climax at the end.

Buy Tickets

Tickets start at $15 (including all fees), and can be purchased online at, in person from the RI Philharmonic Orchestra Box Office in East Providence, or by phone 401.248.7000 (Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., closed Columbus Day, Monday, Oct. 8). On day of concerts only, tickets are also available at The VETS Box Office (Friday, 3:30 p.m.–showtime; Saturday, 4 p.m.-showtime). Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.


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