Rhapsody in Blue: Program Notes & Podcast

Special Feature Podcasts

Click here to listen to pianist Kevin Cole‘s thoughts on Gershwin.

Click here to listen to composer Loren Loiacono speaking on her piece, Sleep Furiously.

Program Notes

LOREN LOIACONO: Sleep Furiously

COMPOSER: Loren Loiacono
BORN: 1989, Stony Brook, New York
WORLD PREMIERE: Albany Symphony, June 2016

INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes, 3 oboes, 4 clarinets, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, harp, piano/celesta, and strings
DURATION: ~13 minutes

ABOUT THE COMPOSER: Loren Loiacono, a student of Steven Stucky, Kevin Ernste, and Roberto Sierra at Cornell University, is one of her generation’s rising voices in orchestral composition. Her work has been commissioned and performed by the Detroit Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and American Composers Orchestra. An avid supporter and promoter of new music, she co-founded the Kettle Corn New Music concert series in New York in 2013; and, she currently acts as the Associate Director of MATA Festival. She has received a number of awards, including ASCAP’s Morton Gould Award (2013, 2005), New York Youth Symphony’s First Music Commission Program (2014), the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute (2015), the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts (2006). During the 2017–18 season, she served as Albany Symphony’s Mellon Composer-Educator-in-Residence; she has also been a fellow at the Aspen Music Festival, Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, Atlantic Music Festival, and Copland House’s CULTIVATE.

BACKGROUND: Sleep Furiously was commissioned and premiered by the Albany Symphony in 2016. Inspired by the grammatically correct, but semantically nonsensical sentence that Noam Chomsky introduced in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures—“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”—Loiacono’s Sleep Furiously explores the boundary between sense and nonsense. This concert will be the second performance of the work.

WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: Loiacono’s music has been called “dreamy, lilting” (Pioneer Press), “plush [and] elusive” (New York Times), “vivid and colorful” (Albany Times Union), “quirky and fun” (Bad Entertainment – Twin Cities). Like their poetic titles, her works are evocative and illusory. At times, the music is charged with vibrant and taut rhythms, and at other times it simply luxuriates in shimmering texture. Indeed, Stucky’s influence manifests in Loiacono’s skillful and prismatic orchestration. Individual melodies emerge from uniform blocks of sound, and much like the juxtaposition of “Sleep Furiously,” musical layers seem to exist on separate planes of existence. Expect contrasts, dark basses, and a short piccolo and bassoon duet.

STEVEN STUCKY: Concerto for Orchestra No. 2

COMPOSER: Steven Stucky
BORN: November 7, 1949. Hutchinson, Kansas
DIED: February 14, 2016. Ithaca, New York
WORLD PREMIERE: March 12, 2004. Los Angeles, CA

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (doubling alto flute and piccolo), 3 oboes (doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (double bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 French horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, celesta, strings

DURATION: ~26 minutes


One of the leading American composers of his generation, Steven Stucky is known for the lucidity of his musical structures, the directness of his expression, and his colorful treatment of the orchestra. He was the type of artist, he claimed, that “sees his way forward by standing on the shoulders of those who have cleared the path ahead. The kind who, instead of dynamiting the locomotive of musical tradition, only wants to hitch his own wagon to it.” His influences—many of which one can hear on the program tonight—were broad, spanning from Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, Ligeti, Messiaen, to John Adams. Perhaps most important to his musical thinking was Lutoslawski, whose biography, Lutoslawski and his Music (Cambridge 1981), Stucky wrote. The book received the ASCAP Deems Taylor award in 1982.

Stucky was devoted to increasing new music’s visibility. In 1980 he joined the faculty of Cornell University, where he taught composition until 2014. After becoming emeritus at Cornell, he joined the Julliard faculty. In 1988 Stucky embarked on what would become a 20-year relationship with the LA Philharmonic, first as composer-in-residence and later as Consulting Composer for New Music. During this affiliation, he conducted the LA Philharmonic New Music Group and Ensemble X.

BACKGROUND: The Second Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned in 2003 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the orchestra’s inaugural season at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. It not only is dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Phil, but also, according to Stucky, “enshrines essential personal loyalties, using musical code.” Stucky’s “code” consisted of translating the letters of the alphabet into musical pitches; he then used these musical pitches as the basis for the work’s thematic material. For example, “Esa-Pekka,” which translates into Eb-A-B in Stucky’s code, is the source of one of the work’s most prominent motives; it emerges in the first few measures in unison cello, harp, and horn. Other motives are derived from “LAP” (short for Los Angeles Philharmonic), Bernard and Lenore “Greenberg” (who underwrote the commission for the concerto) Deborah “Borda” (President of the LA Phil), and Frank “Gehry” (architect of the Walt Disney Concert Hall).  

In 2005, the work won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: Stucky has described his Second Concerto for Orchestra as a celebration of his “Household Gods” the composers who have had the greatest influence on his work: Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, Sibelius, Ravel, Berg, Ligeti, Xenakis, Messiaen, Berio, and Lutoslawski. The work is not a collage, however, and as Stucky warns, we shouldn’t listen to it as “a treasure hunt or a music history lecture, straining to catch musical souvenirs as they go by.” Rather, it is built on a seamless web of allusions to his Gods’ characteristic textures and timbres, creating a work of both dreamy familiarity and novelty.

In the first movement, a sharp, percussive snap sets the orchestra’s upper registers into a shimmering motion, evoking the same opening texture of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. Then, a single line, blending cello, harp, and horn, punctuates the delicate surface, bringing to mind Knussen’s Flourish with Fireworks (itself an homage to Stravinsky’s Fireworks). The mood suddenly clouds over, and with a quick glissando in the harp the curtain reopens onto a Sibelian landscape: here, slow-moving cellos carry the melody under a more skittering canopy; later, distant calls in the brass express a dark romanticism. The movement ends with ascending figurations that unroll in the upper registers, the orchestral color transforming so pointedly that the flute seems simply to dissipate into the high strings.

The second movement, a set of six variations, broadens the first movement’s play with orchestral color. At the beginning, ascending figures, which emerge from the orchestra’s depths (and Debussy’s La Mer), culminate in single, pulsing A in the flute and violin, leading the way to the first variation: a modal subject, performed in unison woodwinds. Throughout the movement, Stucky builds new timbres and textures by bringing unique instrumental combinations into dialogue. In one delightful variation, the xylophone seems to bewitch the clarinet, drawing it into higher registers at increasing speed. For the listener who is interested in picking up Stucky’s allusive “souvenirs,” one might hear reference to both Brahms’s E-flat clarinet (or viola) sonata and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

The Finale bursts with energy, calling upon Stucky’s sizeable percussion section: anvil, bass drum, bongo drums, chimes, Chinese cymbal, glockenspiel, triangle, cowbells, marimba, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambourine, tam-tam, tom-toms, vibraphone, wood blocks, xylophone, and whip. The few moments in the movement that pull away from the general freneticism—especially the magical piccolo and vibraphone duet—conjure Stucky’s earlier Son et Lumière. Yet, these moments do little to slow the surging drive to the end.


COMPOSER: George Gershwin
BORN: September 26, 1898. Brooklyn, New York.
DIED: July 11, 1937. Hollywood, California
WORLD PREMIERE: February 12, 1924; New York.

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, 3 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, triangle, gong, banjo, strings, and solo piano (Grofé’s 1926 symphonic arrangement)
DURATION: ~16 minutes

ABOUT THE COMPOSER: George Gershwin, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, began his music career in 1914 as a song plugger for Jerome H. Remick & Co., a music publishing firm on Tin Pan Alley. Earning $15 a week, Gershwin would play and sing the firm’s songs to entice buyers. By 1926, he had become a skilled improvisor and accompanist, cutting more than 100 piano rolls. In 1917, Gershwin left Remick & Co. for Broadway. A series of theatrical successes followed; songs from Lady be Good! (1924), starring Fred and Adele Astaire and with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, have become standards in the American song repertory.

Rhapsody in Blue brought Gershwin celebrity. Following its success, he devoted more of his energy toward concert music, though he never ceased composing musical theater, songs in collaboration with Ira Gershwin, and Hollywood scores. By the age of 30, he was one of America’s most famous and well-paid composers. He died tragically at the age of 38 from a brain tumor.

BACKGROUND: Rhapsody in Blue was composed for dance band leader Paul Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music,” a concert that sought to “elevate” jazz through symphonic arrangements. As the story goes, however, Gershwin had not agreed to compose a new work for the band leader before it was announced in the press! While playing pool on Broadway and Fifty-second Street, Ira Gershwin came across an article in the January 4, 1924 New York Tribune that reported George Gershwin was preparing a jazz concerto for the February 12 concert in New York’s Aeolian Hall. According to the article, the concerto would be one of the several jazz compositions Whiteman would present to be judged by a committee, consisting of Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz, and others, to answer the question, “What Is American Music.” (Their options were never reported.)

Despite concern that there wasn’t enough time to compose a new work, Gershwin agreed to write something for Whiteman, but only after winning a few concessions: he would write a rhapsody, not a full-length concerto, and the orchestration of the work would be completed by Whiteman’s staff arranger, Ferde Grofé. Gershwin set to work on January 7. Composing on an upright piano in the back room of his family’s apartment on Amsterdam and 100th Street (where he lived with his parents, brothers, and sister), Gershwin completed Rhapsody in Blue in three weeks. On February 3, he handed the score, originally for two pianos, to Grofé, who completed an arrangement for solo piano and jazz band for the premiere concert. In 1926, Grofé re-orchestrated the work for piano soloist and full symphony orchestra.

The title of the work, initially American Rhapsody, was suggested by Ira Gershwin after having visited an exhibit of James Abbot McNeill Whistler’s paintings. Ira Gershwin was inspired by Whistler’s titles—Arrangement in Gray and Black or Nocturne in Black and Gold, for example—which often used colors in their titles, no matter how representational the paintings were.

The premiere was a huge success, bringing Gershwin fame, as “the man who had brought ‘jazz’ into the concert hall,” and wealth; between 1924 and 1934 Gershwin earned more than a quarter of a million dollars from performances, recordings, and rental fees of Rhapsody in Blue.

WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: In many ways, Rhapsody in Blues defies definition. Despite the title, the tone of the workis too optimistic to be considered representative of the African-American blues. And, although the music does include a number of “blue notes” (flattened notes in a major scale), it lacks the harmonic framework characteristic of genre. Nor does Rhapsody fit into a traditional symphonic framework; the role of the pianist is too vital and the form too loose for the work to be considered either a symphony or concerto. It thus seems better to listen to the work as Gershwin described it: as a “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”

Rhapsody in Blue’s opening—a languorous glissando in the clarinet, performed at first as a joke by the premiere clarinetist Ross Gorman (Gershwin had written out a seventeen-note scale)—is now one of most famous clarinet solos in the orchestral repertory. It sets the tone for the work, underscoring the rhapsody’s seeming spontaneity. Although the work is free in form, the first fourteen measures introduce themes that form much of the basis of the piece: a relaxed, bluesy tune in the clarinet and a jaunty, syncopated melody in the horns. Changes in instrumentation (from a bold, muted trumpet to full orchestra), modulations in the direction of the subdominant, widely varying tempi, and the introduction a few new themes (which David Schiff has called the “train” and “shuffle” themes) sustain the improvisatory feel of the work. And in fact, much of the solo part at the premiere concert was improvised by Gershwin, one page of the score simply directing Whiteman to wait for a nod to continue. An extended piano cadenza in the middle of the piece leads to the heart of the work: the broad and lush Andantino moderato section, appearing first in the strings. Here Gershwin seems at his best; his lyricism is both modern and romantic, catchy and charming.

GEORGE GERSHWIN: American In Paris

COMPOSER: George Gershwin
WORLD PREMIERE: December 28, 1928. New York.

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (including piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, tenor drum, wood block, bass drum, 2 tom-toms, 4 taxi horns of different pitches, celeste, strings
DURATION: ~17 minutes

BACKGROUND: Unlike Rhapsody in Blue, the idea for An American in Paris had been crystallizing for quite some time before Gershwin set to work composing it. Between 1924 and 1928, he travelled five times to Paris, premiering his music, meeting with the foremost composers of the day, and soliciting composition classes. Maurice Ravel famously declined: “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?” And, so did Stravinsky: “I should study with you!” he jested after learning of Gershwin’s income. In 1926, Gershwin decided to compose a work about his impressions of the city, but another two years would pass before much of the composition was done.

The first trace of Gershwin’s work on An American in Paris appears on a postcard he sent to his hosts, Robert and Mabel Schirmer, in 1926. Thanking them for their hospitality, his letter included a short melody, which he labeled “An American in Paris,” and “Very Parisienne.” In 1928, after accepting a commission from Walter Damrosch, Gershwin returned to the melody. (Perhaps his time bringing Ravel to hear “authentic jazz” in Harlem during Ravel’s 1928 tour of the U.S. had made him nostalgic for Paris.) From his apartment overlooking the Hudson River, he began sketching the larger structure of the work. Describing how the idea came to him, he wrote, “I love that river and I thought how often I had been homesick for the single sight of it, and then the idea struck me—an American in Paris, homesickness, the blues. So, there you are. I thought of a walk on the Champs Élysées, the honking of the taxi.”

From mid-March until June of 1928, Gershwin returned to Paris’ Hotel Majestic to work more extensively on the piece, and to buy Parisian taxi horns that he felt could adequately convey “the traffic sound of the Place de la Concorde during rush hour.” He completed the orchestration in New York, and it was premiered by Walter Damrosch with the New York Philharmonic in December.

WHAT YOU’LL HEAR: Unlike Rhapsody in Blue, which was conceived not as “embodying an assimilation of feeling rather than presenting specific scenes of American life in music,” Gershwin envisaged An American in Paris as a tone poem, depicting the “the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” At the premiere performance, the work was accompanied by an explicit program, written by composer and critic Deems Taylor and approved by Gershwin. Taylor’s program continues to inform popular interpretation today.

With the first theme, Taylor writes, “You are to imagine . . . an American, visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Élysées on a mild sunny morning in May or June. Being what he is, he starts with preliminaries, and is off at full speed at once, to the tune of the First Walking Theme . . . designed to convey an impression of Gallic freedom and gaiety.” The Walking Theme is an amiable tune. Kicked off by xylophone and violins, one can easily envision a naively optimistic American happily taking in the sights and perhaps—as the intrusion of the Parisian taxi horns suggest—not really paying attention to where he’s going. The realism Gershwin constructs is amplified shortly thereafter, when the trombones cite a short fragment of La Maxixe, a popular tune based on Brazilian dance rhythms. The American’s walk takes him through the winding Paris streets, leading eventually to what Taylor describes as an “unhallowed episode,” when “that solo violin approaches our hero (in soprano register) and addresses him in the most charming broken English.”

The central section depicts “our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a few drinks, suddenly succumb[ing] to a spasm of homesickness.” Here, a bluesy melody in the trumpet, drunken swells in the saxophones, and off-kilter beat in the bass paint a pathetic, yet nevertheless loveable, character, thinking of his home (and its unique musical traditions).  

But, such sentimentality doesn’t last. The trumpets shift the mood abruptly—perhaps, Taylor suggests, another American companion entering the scene—with a swaggering Charleston tune. The Walking Theme returns, and as Gershwin describes, “apparently, the homesick American, having left the café and reached the open air, has downed his spell of blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life. At the conclusion, the street noises and French atmosphere are triumphant.”