An American in Europe

Jazz composer George Gershwin's resurgence is in full swing as the BSO carries his classical masterpieces across the continent.

Bso In Europe

October 27, 2005|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

TURIN, ITALY -- He's been dead for 68 years, but George Gershwin may never have been a livelier presence than now in a place where he craved acceptance -- the concert hall.

In fact, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is currently touring Europe with a program that features an all-Gershwin first half: An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue.

By request.

In fact, six out of seven requests. The BSO has already played it twice in Spain and last night in Turin to hearty ovations. It will play the program again tonight in Parma, Italy, tomorrow in Slovenia and Saturday in Vienna to close the tour. (The exception was Barcelona, which chose a Beethoven/Sibelius program.)

It's the kind of serious treatment of his symphonic works that Gershwin tends not to get back home in the United States, where orchestras have long-relegated him to "light" programs and pop concerts. But that may be changing, as major conductors -- including the BSO's Yuri Temirkanov -- increasingly champion his compositions.

"I would say most American orchestras have tried to include some American music repertoire in their tours," said Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "But I would also say that a Gershwin half of a program is a little unusual. In 27 years of touring experience, I don't remember a Gershwin half."

In his day, Gershwin could turn out Tin Pan Alley songs and Broadway shows with astounding quantity and quality. And, in fact, the handsome, disarmingly creative composer helped to define the Jazz Age, with his sophisticated songbook of American standards, such as "I Got Rhythm" and "The Man I Love."

His orchestral works were not always greeted warmly in his own country. Many Europeans, though, quickly embraced the composer of "Embraceable You" as he took a classical turn.

For his part, Renato Musmeci, a leading organizer of orchestral tours throughout Europe for 25 years, had no hesitation about booking the Gershwin program for the BSO's Italian leg.

"Gershwin was the first classical composer who interested me when I was young," Musmeci said last night, "because his music was so overwhelming, so beautiful, and full of new ideas, feelings and atmosphere."

"We know this music, and we like this music," said Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra as he arrived for a Gershwin-filled concert by the visiting BSO in Madrid over the weekend. "For us, Gershwin is a serious composer, a great American composer," said Mena, who happens to be conducting some Gershwin himself this week in Bilbao.

In Gershwin's short lifetime (he died in 1937 at 38), he quickly won ardent admirers on the European side of the Atlantic. Eminent 20th-century French composer Maurice Ravel famously declined Gershwin's request to study with him, reportedly saying, "Why should I turn you into a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin?"

And upon hearing how much Gershwin earned every year from royalties, Ravel added: "You should be teaching me."

Gershwin has long been the best-selling American composer on recordings in Europe, far outpacing releases of works by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and Philip Glass, according to industry insiders.

European players

And, several leading European classical artists, such as French pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Jean-Philippe Collard, have always included Gershwin in their repertoire.

Still, Reinhold Goeggel, of the Hanover-based Konzertdirektion Hans Ulrich Schmid, another major European tour management company, said he had never come across an orchestra playing Gershwin on tour. "It is a good idea to have something different on the program," Goeggel said. "And audiences here want to hear American orchestras play American music. When Spanish orchestras are on tour, people want to hear them play Spanish music."

When playing on their home turf, Spanish orchestras play as wide a range of repertoire as any American or French or British ones do. For example, when Leonard Slatkin, music director of Washington's National Symphony, guest-conducts the National Orchestra of Spain in Madrid in December, his program includes Gershwin's Concerto in F.

"[Touring] orchestras are always bringing Bruckner and Mahler," said Alfonso Aijon, whose Ibermusica firm managed the BSO's three-city Spanish debut. "This is fresh air."

Gershwin instinctively understood that jazz could offer the tradition-bound classical music arena a real kick, and he proved it in such orchestral gems as An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F, each with its own unforgettable melodic licks, rhythmic vitality and distinctive, sax-spiced instrumental coloring.

More respect at home

There are signs that Gershwin is finally getting the respect on his home turf that he long sought.

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