Sunday, February 24, 2013

Gershwin, Gottschalk and Guest Artist Michael Lewin

Pre-print of article published in the Concord Journal on Feb 22, 2013. 

Michael Lewin
Boston played a role in the origins of the American classic Rhapsody in Blue, and a Boston-based piano virtuoso who lives in Newton will bring the piece to life in Concord on March 2 at the Performing Arts Center, 51 Walden Street. In early January 1924, George Gershwin was on a train ride from New York to Boston when the rhythmic noises of the train on steel rails helped him form the concept of Rhapsody in Blue. Internationally-acclaimed pianist Michael Lewin has made the Rhapsody an important part of his piano repertoire. He has performed it more than 50 times with orchestras around the world. Of a performance in Miami, the Miami Herald said: "The virtuoso pianist confirmed his gifts with this stellar appearance. He gave us a precise and solid interpretation of the famous work. Lewin’s execution was truly impressive in its style and energy."
The famous work had a successful premiere in New York by Paul Whiteman’s Jazz Band with Gershwin himself at the piano. With little time to compose the piece during January, Gershwin completed a two-piano version that he provided to Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé, best known today for writing the Grand Canyon Suite. Grofé’s original orchestration for Whiteman's jazz band was finished on February 4 and then modified in the first of five rehearsals before the concert. Gershwin had not finished all of the piano score, so played or improvised the part from memory. His understanding with Whiteman was that he would nod when his solos were over and the next orchestral portion was to begin. The enthusiastic audience at the February 12, 1924, premiere included John Philip Sousa, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Igor Stravinsky, among other music luminaries.

The piece was later re-orchestrated by Grofé, first for additional instruments in Whiteman’s own band (Whiteman had made it his signature piece), and then for larger ensembles. In 1938 Grofé scored it for concert band (four years before the 1942 orchestral score that is used today by most symphony orchestras), but without a piano solo part! Instead, Grofé had distributed the solo piano material amongst the instruments in the band. Thus, the published band version required substantial editing over the years to include a piano solo and numerous other corrections and re-harmonizations not true to the original version or even the later full orchestral versions. The Concord Band performed the edited 1938 band version in 1990 with local pianist Frederic Moyer, and tinkering with the score by then Music Director William Toland. In 1998, Dr. Thomas Verrier, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, created a new band arrangement that included solo piano, cleaned up the errors in the 1938 Grofé concert band arrangement, and retained all the characteristic sounds of the original. In fact, Verrier used Gershwin’s personal copy of the Grofé symphony orchestra score as a primary source in his arrangement. It is the Verrier arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue that Michael Lewin and the Concord Band will perform. It will be Lewin’s first performance of Rhapsody with a band. Michael told Band president Ken Troup that it is a pleasure to play with community groups that are usually more appreciative of soloists than professional organizations.

Jim O’Dell, Music Director of the Concord Band, explained his interest in Rhapsody in Blue for the March 2 program, subtitled “Made in America” this way: “I wanted to perform it because of the Verrier arrangement and its inclusion in The Donald Hunsberger Wind Library as a publication that further enriches the wind band's repertoire. While I have been a friend and colleague of Michael’s for 20 years, we have never before publicly performed Rhapsody together.” For his part, Lewin said “I am thrilled to be working with Jim on these pieces.”

Michael Lewin is a Juilliard School graduate and is on the piano faculties of The Boston Conservatory and Boston University. His career was launched with top prizes in the Liszt International Competition, the American Pianists Association Award, and the Kapell International Piano Competition. The New York Times wrote of Michael’s New York recital debut in Lincoln Center in 1984 that “his immense technique and ability qualify him eminently for success.” His extensive repertoire includes more than 40 piano concertos, with particular interest in the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and American composers. Recent concert highlights include the celebration of Liszt's 200th birthday around the world. Michael has appeared with the Boston Pops 13 times and is internationally applauded as one of America’s most abundantly gifted and charismatic concert pianists, performing to acclaim in more than 30 countries with orchestras, in recital and as a chamber musician. His discography has received critical praise, and reflects the great scope of his musical interests. He has given world premieres of two piano concertos by David Kocsis, the Concerto for the New Millennium, in 2000, and the Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra in 2012.

Among Lewin’s many recordings is the piano music of American composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. A second delight for the March 2 Concord Band audience will be a transcription for piano and concert band of Gottschalk’s piano and orchestra dance piece Célèbre Tarentelle, with Lewin playing the piano solo with the Band. Michael said playing the two pieces together is “an interesting combination. They were both American composers whose names begin with G and who died young. Both were seminal figures in American music who straddled other musical genres with classical: jazz in Gershwin’s case, and Caribbean music in Gottschalk’s case.” The Tarentelle was first performed in Philadelphia in 1864 and is a bright, fast Italian folk dance. A review of a North Carolina performance by Michael Lewin with orchestral accompaniment said, "In Gottschalk’s toe-tapping Grande Tarantelle, Lewin quickly established his mastery of crystal-clear articulation and confident precision, reaching appropriate abandon in the energetic climax." Gottschalk played piano at an early age and was a wunderkind in New Orleans before sailing to Europe at the age of 14 to further his classical piano education. After 13 years in Europe, he returned to the Americas where he toured extensively and was arguably the foremost pianist in the New World. Because of his tours throughout the Americas and his New Orleans roots, Gottschalk became the first significant composer to use African-American and Latin-American melodies and rhythms.

To take full advantage of Lewin’s versatility, Jim O’Dell has included Percy Aldridge Grainger’s Children’s March, Over the Hills and Far Away on the March 2 program. This lighthearted and fanciful march was one of the first works for concert band to include piano as an integral part of the arrangement.

Tickets for the 8 pm March 2, 2013, performance of these piano and band pieces at 51 Walden are $20 for adults and $10 for seniors and students and will be available at the door or on line via the Concord Band website,

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