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BBC Philharmonic play Gershwin and Ravel

Sarah Tierney sees an audience go into rhapsodies at the Bridgewater Hall

Published on March 5th 2009.


BBC Philharmonic play Gershwin and Ravel

If someone asked me to spend Sunday evening at an experimental jazz-classical fusion concert, I'd almost certainly have a prior engagement. Neither genre is regarded as very 'listener-friendly' even in their most conservative forms, so an impressionistic merging of the two seems more than likely to inspire fidgeting and surreptitious watch-checking in an audience.

It's why when Gershwin premièred his jazz-classical crossover, 'Rhapsody in Blue', at an educational concert called 'An Experiment in Modern Music' in 1924, the crowd was eyeing up the exit doors before he even began. They'd sat through a series of samey numbers including 'The True Form of Jazz' and 'Contrast: Legitimate Scoring vs. Jazzing' and were getting a little tetchy.

But, the story goes, the rising clarinet glissando that forms the opening bars of 'Rhapsody in Blue' stopped them short. Gershwin's piece overshadowed the rest of the concert and went on to sell millions. American Airlines pushed plane tickets using it, the Los Angeles Olympics opened with it, and Woody Allen got writers' block to it in the first scenes of Manhattan. What could have been an unlistenable exploration of two contrasting styles turned out to be one of the most hummable tunes of the twentieth century.

Judging by the healthy turnout at Sunday's BBC Philharmonic concert at the Bridgewater Hall, Rhapsody's popularity isn't waning. As the opening number in a programme that included two piano concertos by Ravel before ending on Gershwin's 'Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra', it got a very enthusiastic reception. With the Bridgewater Hall's Organist in Residence, Wayne Marshall, at the ivories, the orchestra played a fast, expressive and evocative piece, which the musicians seemed to enjoy as much as the audience.

Nelson Goerner

Gershwin described Rhapsody as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America” but it's more commonly seen as an homage to his hometown. Any listeners on Sunday whose mind's eye didn't settle on a scene of subway vents, skyscrapers and yellow taxis should be congratulated on the originality of their imagination. It's almost impossible to hear 'Rhapsody in Blue' and not think of New York.

Next up was Ravel's 'Piano Concerto in G' which, to a newbie classical listener, presents more of a challenge. The inventiveness and jolts of this jazz-influenced piece go against the instincts of an ear raised on the easy repetition of pop music. And unlike with 'Rhapsody in Blue', there isn't the safety net of a mega-famous melody.

Ravel at the piano with Gershwin far right

The people I was with had warned me that the second part of this piano concerto, the Adagio assai, might bring tears to their eyes. It did – and I could understand why. A tentative beginning became a slow, drawn out theme that spoke of something sad, regretful, and very beautiful. Argentinian pianist Nelson Goerner was clearly 'in the zone' when playing this. Hunched over the piano, his nose almost touching the keys, he looked and sounded like a genius at work.

He returned after the interval to play 'Piano Concerto in D Major for the Left Hand' which Ravel composed for Paul Wittgenstein (brother of philosopher Ludwig). He lost his right arm in the first world war but resolved to continued his career as a pianist without it. When Ravel first delivered the piece to Wittgenstein, he didn't much like it. Possibly because the composer, somewhat missing the point, played it to him using both hands.

Wayne Marshall

At the Bridgewater, Goerner dutifully kept his right hand on his piano stool throughout, though you wouldn't have known if you weren't looking. To my ears, it had all the range and complexity of an ambidextrous composition.

It was back to Gershwin and Wayne Marshall again for the closing piece; 'Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra' which you could almost dance to (though this being a classical concert, a light tapping of the foot would have to do). The programme notes refer to elements of Charleston and New York blues. Although difficult to make sense of at first, it did that jazz band thing of gradually teasing you with a melody that retreats and advances until you're completely seduced.

Ravel and Gershwin were fans of each other's work: Gershwin asked Ravel for lessons in composition, and Ravel responded with a request for lessons on “how to make so much money by writing music”. Judging from tonight's recital – which inspired cheers and standing ovations from some audience members – neither composer needed any extra coaching.

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Manchester Confidential readers can get two for one tickets to see the BBC Philharmonic play Elgar, Beethoven and Delius at The Bridgewater Hall on 28 March. Single ticket prices range between £9 and £31. Click here for details.

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