The sound of New York

The sound of New York

If the significance of a show is measured by the celebrity of those who attend it, the concert titled 'An experiment in modern music' was destined to make history. On February 12, 1924, convened by the jazz musician Paul Whiteman at the Aeolian Hall in New York, the composers Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninov, John Philip Sousa, Ernest Bloch, Victor Herbert and Virgil Thomson were among the audience; violinists Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler and Mischa Elman; and directors Leopold Stokowski, Willem Mengelberg and Walter Damrosch. Sitting next to him, opera and film stars, flappers and celebrities with no other job than living as if there were no tomorrow.

What brought together so many illustrious names in the splendid room on 42nd Street? A program with 26 pieces, many by authors now forgotten. It was a vindication of jazz and the last work on the program was what we would call a prestigious title, due to its style and author, although it did not fit the general atmosphere of the concert. There was Elgar's 'March of Pomp and Circumstance No. 1', premiered in 1901, an unofficial anthem of the United Kingdom. Before, another commissioned to a 25-year-old young man was performed: 'Rhapsody in Blue' by Gershwin, known until that day for his musicals full of songs of astonishing melodic ease. Born into a Jewish family of Ukrainian origin, he taught himself to play the piano and received basic musical training. At the age of 16 he worked in a piano store, giving demonstrations for middle-class families who wanted to buy an instrument for his children. A wide audience, because a piano was a sign of distinction, especially in the overflowing New York of that time. Not in vain did Steinway have its largest factory there.

Gershwin had previously collaborated with Whiteman. The promoter and director was very aware of the young man's talent and that is why he commissioned a piece for a concert with hardly any premieres. He accepted, but was immersed in the whirlwind of his commitments to the theaters and forgot about it. Five weeks before the concert, a New York newspaper published a report about it, talking about the expectation he had generated. His brother Ira, his regular lyricist, read it and reminded George that he hadn't composed a single note. He tried to avoid the commitment, but Whiteman convinced him that he could not do it.

His biographers record statements in which Gershwin explains that he conceived the piece while traveling to Boston. «He was on the train, with the roar of it that is so often so stimulating for a composer... I often hear music in the very heart of the noise. And there I suddenly heard - and even saw on paper - the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. I didn't come up with new themes, but I worked on the thematic material I already had in mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I conceived of it as a kind of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unparalleled national spirit, of our metropolitan madness. When I arrived in Boston I had a defined plot for the piece. It was January 7, according to the score of the work in its version for two pianos that the composer finished in just a few days. It was sent to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman's regular arranger (and author of some very 'American' titles such as the Grand Canyon Suite), who finished the orchestration on the 4th.

He conceived the piece on a train "as a musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot."

The work premiered with Gershwin himself at the piano, accompanied by the Palais Royal Orchestra reinforced with string players and Whiteman on the podium. The expectation was maximum and was satisfied from the first bars, with that clarinet solo that sounds like a police siren. From there, the frenetic rhythm of the city, the lyricism of a loving conversation at dusk, the traffic, dreams... The success was such that the concert was repeated in several cities, removing the 'March of Pomp and Circumstance' from the program. ' and making the real highlight, that Rhapsody of less than twenty minutes with which American classical music opened a new era.

Gershwin had the merit of combining the essence of the country's popular culture, with jazz and blues as central elements, with the European tradition in which composers such as Richard Strauss dominated at the time. The Rhapsody is at the origin of all that. And very different versions have been made of it that nevertheless maintain its essence. In addition to those conceived for one and two pianos and the one arranged for piano and jazz band, Grofé himself added another in 1942, which is the one usually heard in concert halls today: for piano and symphony orchestra.

Although Gershwin wanted to reflect the spirit of the United States, the piece has ended up summarizing the air of New York better than any other. Cinema has helped a lot in this assimilation. In the opening scene of 'Manhattan', Woody Allen identifies music and city as perhaps has never been done in another film. In 'The Great Gatsby', Baz Luhrmann plays it at the spectacular party organized by his protagonist, with the Manhattan skyline in the background, unleashing an apotheosis of light and enthusiasm.

It is one of the most influential and performed works of the 20th century. It is not strange that when its author appeared before Ravel and, aware of his limitations in the field of orchestration, asked him to give him some classes, the French Basque responded with his usual irony: "Why do you want to be a Second-class Ravel can be a first-class Gershwin? His success was enormous, but he did not enjoy it for long. He died at age 38 from a brain tumor. Only thirteen had passed since the concert at the Aeolian.