GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Concerto in F (1925)
After Walter Damrosch saw the legendary Paul Whiteman conduct Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924), he commissioned the young composer to write a “proper” piano concerto. The result was the full-fledged, 3-movement Concerto in F. Gershwin was known primarily as a jazz composer with an innate sense of what would please an audience. Despite claiming (with tongue in cheek) that after receiving Damrosch’s commission, he bought “four or five books on musical structure to find out exactly what the concerto form really was,” Gershwin was no stranger to subjects like orchestration, harmony, and musical forms. Still, to someone who spent his life questing after respect from the “serious” music establishment, the assignment was daunting. Unlike the Rhapsody in Blue, which was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, Gershwin orchestrated the Concerto in F himself. Originally commissioned as the New York Concerto, Gershwin gave it a title that would sound more “classical.” He was the soloist and Walter Damrosch conducted the New York Symphony (i.e., Philharmonic) at the Carnegie Hall premiere in 1925. The reception by classical music traditionalists was less than kind, but the general audience response was enthusiastic. Gershwin provided some commentary on his piece: “The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young and enthusiastic spirit of American life…The second movement has a poetic nocturnal atmosphere…The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping to the same pace throughout.” The influence of 1920s jazz is clearly there, including a bluesy trumpet melody in the slow movement, but so are lovely lyrical passages for strings, lively percussion, and above all, jubilant tunes. A wonderful amalgam of European sensibilities and American freedom and panache, the Concerto is a concert favorite that speaks in America’s musical vernacular: jazz.