Concerto in F (Gershwin)
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Concerto in F is a composition by George Gershwin for solo piano and orchestra which is closer in form to a traditional concerto than the earlier jazz-influenced Rhapsody in Blue. It was written in 1925 on a commission from the conductor and director Walter Damrosch.
Genesis of the concerto
Damrosch had been present at the February 12, 1924 concert arranged and conducted by Paul Whiteman at Aeolian Hall in New York City titled An Experiment in Modern Music which became famous for the premiere of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, in which the composer performed the piano solo. The day after the concert, Damrosch contacted Gershwin to commission from him a full-scale piano concerto for the New York Symphony Orchestra, closer in form to a classical concerto and orchestrated by the composer.
Gershwin would later receive formal training and lessons from influential figures like Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger and Arnold Schoenberg in advanced composition, harmony and orchestration; however, in 1924 he had had no such training. Under the pressure of a deadline to complete the work in 1925, Gershwin bought books on theory, concerto form and orchestration and taught himself the skills needed. Because of contractual obligations for three different Broadway musicals, he was not able to begin sketching ideas until May 1925. He began the two-piano score on July 22 after returning from a trip to London, and the original drafts were entitled "New York Concerto". The first movement was written in July, the second in August, and the third in September, much of the work being done in a practice shack at the Chautauqua Institution. This had been arranged through the Australian composer and teacher Ernest Hutcheson, who offered seclusion for Gershwin at Chautauqua, where his quarters were declared off limits to everyone until 4 p.m. daily. Thanks to this, Gershwin was able to complete the full orchestration of the concerto on November 10, 1925. Later that month, Gershwin hired a 55-piece orchestra, at his own expense, to run through his first draft at the Globe Theatre. Damrosch attended and gave advice to Gershwin, who made a few cuts and revisions.
The Concerto in F shows considerable development in Gershwin's compositional technique, particularly because he orchestrated the entire work himself, unlike the Rhapsody in Blue which was scored by Ferde Grofé, Paul Whiteman's section pianist and principal orchestrator. The English composer and orchestrator William Walton commented that he adored Gershwin's orchestration of the concerto. The work calls for 2 flutes plus piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 B flat clarinets plus B flat bass clarinet (this trio being featured as the backing to the solo trumpet in the middle movement), 2 bassoons, 4 Horns in F, 3 B-flat trumpets, 3 trombones and a tuba, 3 timpani - 32", 29" and 26" (one player), 3 percussionists (first player: bass drum, bells, xylophone; second player: snare drum periodically muffled and with regular and brush sticks, wood block, whip; third player: crash cymbals, suspended cymbal with sticks, triangle and gong), solo piano and strings.
The concerto is in the traditional three movements:
- Adagio - Andante con moto
- Allegro agitato
There are strong thematic links between the three movements, all of which are heavily influenced by jazz. There exists in each movement a very subtle structural integrity that, while perhaps not immediately apparent to the listener, is rooted in the classical tradition.
The first movement begins with blasts from the timpani, introducing elements of the main thematic material. After an extended orchestral introduction, the piano enters with a solo section, introducing another melody found throughout the movement. From here, the music alternates with contrasting sections of grandiosity and delicacy. The climax is reached at the Grandioso, in which the orchestra resounds the piano's original melody, accompanied by a large triplet figure in the soloist. There is a cadenza of quick triplet ostinatos which leads to the final section: speeding octaves and chords, culminating in a large run of the triplet ostinato up the keyboard along an F Major 6 chord, bringing the movement to a close.
The second movement is reminiscent of the blues - beginning with an elegant melody in a solo trumpet accompanied by a trio of clarinets. A faster section featuring the piano follows, building gradually until near the end, at which point the piece deceptively pulls back to the original melody, now given to the flute. The movement ends in a peaceful, introspective cadence.
The final movement is pulsating and energetic with several references to ragtime, featuring both new material and melodies from the previous movements. A false climax is found in a Grandioso section identical to that of the first movement, which in turn evolves into another build to the true pinnacle of the concerto, again dominated by the F Major 6 chord, bringing the piece to a close.
Release and Reception
The work was premiered by the New York Symphony Orchestra with Damrosch conducting (three years later the orchestra would merge with the Philharmonic Symphony Society into the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) at Carnegie Hall in New York on December 3, 1925, and featured the composer as the soloist. The concert was sold out and the concerto was very well received by the general public. However, the reviews were mixed, with many critics unable to classify it as jazz or classical. Indeed, there was a great variety of opinion among Gershwin's contemporaries; Igor Stravinsky thought the work was one of genius, whereas Sergei Prokofiev disliked it intensely.
Performance in film
A performance of the 3rd movement of the concerto is featured during a humorous fantasy sequence in the film An American in Paris (1951). In one of the film's many musical numbers, Oscar Levant's character Adam Cook, a struggling pianist, daydreams that he is performing the concerto for a gala audience in a concert hall. As the scene progresses, Adam fantasizes that he is also every other member of the orchestra, as well as the conductor, and even envisions that he is applauding himself from the audience at the concerto's conclusion.
There is also a performance of an excerpt in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue (1945) where it is partially played onscreen by Robert Alda (dubbed by Oscar Levant), and then at the film's conclusion by Levant himself. It is heard at especially poignant moments, once when Gershwin stumbles over the notes because of the effects of his fatal brain tumor, and once more in the scene in which Gershwin's death is announced.
Levant's performance of the concerto in An American in Paris is noteworthy because Levant was himself an accomplished concert pianist and composer who had befriended Gershwin in 1928.
Although somewhat less popular than many other piano concertos, a number of recordings by well known artists have been made. The first was in 1928 by Paul Whiteman and his Concert Orchestra, with Roy Bargy at the piano, of an arrangement by Ferde Grofé, for Columbia Records. Others include:
- Oscar Levant and Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra (from the 1944 radio broadcast)
- Oscar Levant and Andre Kostelanetz with the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York
- Alec Templeton and Thor Johnson with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
- Earl Wild and Arthur Fiedler with the Boston Pops Orchestra
- Eugene List and Howard Hanson with the Eastman-Rochester Orchestra
- Lazar Berman and Gennady Rozhdestvensky with Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra
- André Previn and Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra (Previn has made two further recordings, both conducting from the keyboard, with the London Symphony Orchestra and again with the Pittsburgh Symphony)
- Garrick Ohlsson and Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony
- Philippe Entremont and Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra
- Hélène Grimaud and David Zinman with the Baltimore Symphony
- Werner Haas and Edo de Waart with Orchestre National de l'Opéra de Monte-Carlo
- Jerome Lowenthal and Maurice Abravanel with the Utah Symphony
- Bonnie Gritton and Susan Duehlmeire (two-piano version)
- Jon Nakamatsu and Jeff Tyzik with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
- Katia and Marielle Labèque (two-piano version)
- Cristina Ortiz and André Previn with the London Symphony Orchestra
- Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Marin Alsop with the Baltimore Symphony (jazz band version orchestrated by Ferde Grofé)
- Sviatoslav Richter and Christoph Eschenbach with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (live from the 1993 Schwetzingen Festival)
- Marc-André Hamelin and Leonard Slatkin with Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra (live from Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 2005)
- Stefano Bollani and Riccardo Chailly with Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (live from Gewandhaus, Leipzig, 2010)
Although Gershwin never recorded the concerto, he was invited by Rudy Vallee to play the third movement from the concerto on an NBC radio broadcast in 1931, which was preserved on transcription discs and later issued on both LPs and compact discs. Vallee used a special arrangement prepared for his studio orchestra. Gershwin also played a few of his popular songs on the broadcast.
- Kennedy Center/National Symphony Program Notes by Thomas May
- San Francisco Symphony - Program Notes
- Interview with conductor Riccardo Chailly and pianist Stefano Bollani by Gian Mario Benzing
-  Article in The Guardian (UK), June 17, 2011, about the premiere.
- Mark 56 liner notes
- Concerto in F major for piano and orchestra (1925), analysis of the concerto by Steven Schwartz on Classical Net