Gershwin puts the hurt on the 20th and 21st centuries

I have an alarming number of pieces to learn this week (I have first rehearsals for three big-ish programs in a 4 day period), alongside completion of my UK taxes (argh- I get to do taxes twice a year….), so blog posts may be scarce for a while.

Among the works on my desk is one I did not too long ago (thankfully), Gershwin’s American in Paris (you can read some of my earlier thoughts about this piece here). It’s a piece I’ve played, conducted and covered a few times, but one covering experience comes to mind this week…

It was during my year at the Cincinnati Symphony- the orchestra held a brief mini-festival dedicated to the intersections of classical music and jazz. There was a nice mixture of the new and the old, and some really fine performances, but at the end it really struck me that the best of the works we heard were those by Gershwin, which were the earliest pieces in the festival- not a tribute to progress, I’m afraid. To me, his music seemed to be the most successful as BOTH jazz and classical music- that is, it successfully integrated the rhythmic language of jazz, the spirit and vocal style of the blues and the sound world of the jazz ensemble with a classical mastery of form, counterpoint and motivic development. His music was also the most fun.

Over the years, this idea has, sadly, taken hold in my head. In the first 3rd of the 20th c., jazz had a profound and international impact on classical music. One could make the case that not all jazz-inspired works of that era, by the likes of Ravel, Milhaud and Stravinsky, qualify as both great works of jazz and great works of classical music. More often they’re great classical pieces inspired by jazz, where as Gershwin’s music excels in both worlds.

Still, as the century went along, jazz inspired classical music seemed to become both more common and, generally less good. Bernstein’s jazz pieces of the 50’s start to look like the last, magical gasp of a movement that was already fading away (and Bernstein was closer to Gershwin than we are to Bernstein). Many great jazz composers, from Ellington through Ornette Coleman, tried their hands at large-scale, classically inspired jazz pieces for orchestra, but I wouldn’t really say many of those works are really successful, at least they’re not as good as their pure jazz projects. The lesson of Milhaud and Stravinsky seems to be that a piece has to work in the genre in which it is being heard (in their case, as classical pieces), and then, if the music is also successful by the standards of another medium (in their case, jazz), congrats are in order. I’m not sure that a piece like Milhaud’s Creation du Monde is great jazz (in fact, I’m sure it’s not), but it is a great piece, and that’s fine. Rhapsody in Blue is great jazz and a great solo/orchestral work

However, if composers of the last 50 years have largely stumbled  when integrating classical music with jazz, it seems like the fate of rock n roll and it’s siblings and cousins relationship to classical music has been a more or less complete and abject failure.

This is striking for a number of reasons. First of all, rock is a pretty old musik- it’s been around in one form or another as the more-or-less dominant form of popular music for about sixty years. The 20th c. left us with two huge classical movements- the serial path, and the folk/vernacular music path. Whether you’re talking Bartok or Vaughan Williams, the importance of vernacular music in art music in the last 100 years is hard to overstate. Gershwin took the vernacular music of his day into the concert hall and made magic. Ives showed the developmental potential of tunes like Camptown Races and hundreds of other musical dinner scraps.

However, nearly 60 years in, I’m not sure there has been a “classical” masterpiece written that integrates the language of R & B, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, hip hop, metal, hard rock or punk into  its DNA. I fear now that the window has closed- the rock/pop family of genres seem to have atrophied into the plastic and lifeless artefacts of corporately generated background music to accompany product placement.

Still, there have been many efforts to mine the riches of the 60’s for classical ideas. Artists from the Kronos Quartet to Nigel Kennedy have struggled to bring Hendrix into the concert hall- so far all I’ve heard are arrangements that pale in comparison to the originals. It’s not as exciting, not as hip, not as funky, not as intense and not as cool.

Then there is the long list of rockers who, perhaps with the best of intentions, have tried to cross over to classical music. I actually like Elvis Costello’s classical projects on their own merits, but most of these faded-rock-star projects are just embarrassing….

Rouse’s “Bonham’s Drums” was a cool piece the one time I got to hear it. I’ve always wanted to commission an orchestral work from Steve Coleman.

I’d say rockers have done far better at bringing classical ideas and techniques into rock. Whether it’s Stockhausen’s influence on the Beatles or Verdi’s on Bohemian Rhapsody. Pete Townsend and Pink Floyd showed they could work in leitmotif’s and build large forms that hung together with a real sense of drama. Yes, Yngwie Malmsteen was embarassing for musicians in all genres….

Anyway- will we ever see a rock Bartok/Gershwin/Bernstein? If you know one, send me the link.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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5 comments on “Gershwin puts the hurt on the 20th and 21st centuries”

  1. Chris

    The best combination I’ve seen is The Bays with The Heritage Orchestra. Not only do they combine rock and house music well with classical/orchestral music, they compose it live. We saw them at the Royal Festival Hall last fall, and it was amazing! By the end, they had just about the whole hall on their feet dancing, and the fastest standing ovation I’ve seen.

  2. Chris

    The best combination I’ve seen is The Bays with The Heritage Orchestra. Not only do they combine rock and house music well with classical/orchestral music, they compose it live. We saw them at the Royal Festival Hall last fall, and it was amazing! By the end, they had just about the whole hall on their feet dancing, and the fastest standing ovation I’ve seen.

  3. Scott Spiegelberg

    One could argue that minimalist works by Glass, Riley, or Reich are heavily influenced by rock-n-roll. I play a piece by Meredith Monk and my students are likely to think it is pop rather than classical. Likewise the cross-currents revealed in the Bang-on-a-Can marathons, with classical groups like Ethel and rock groups like Clogs sounds very much like each other.

  4. Erik K

    I’ve always dug Street Music and Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra by Bill Russo…and first heard both on a CD paired with An American in Paris with Seiji and the San Francisco Symphony…it all comes together.

  5. Zoltan

    I’m (very) slowly getting into jazz. What I really like are orchestral arrangements (Diana Krall has on some recordings — I know, purists dislike it. Shoot me for liking it) and so it comes to no surprise that I very much like Gershwin. I simply love the sound of a big orchestra (though there are moments when a jazz trio is exactly what I need to listen to).
    So, this might be a good opportunity to ask you all what you would recommend (pieces or whole recordings) to someone who’s pretty much new to jazz and likes the sound of the orchestra.
    As an aside, Rachmaninoff’s 4th Piano Concerto is said to have been influenced by jazz. What I noticed is, while Rach quite often used syncopation before, here (and in his late works) the rhythms are different (can’t really describe it exactly) but also the harmonies.

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