Ain’t that America

Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s American Style

By Sarah Sidlow

Photo: Pianist Awadagin Pratt will perform with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra on Oct. 4

For centuries, musicians have taken on the task of answering the question; just what is “American” music? The challenge, both intellectual and creative, stems from a desire to represent an American ideal, and to gain a sense of cultural clarity.

Inevitably, American music’s genealogical roots are traced to the Mississippi Delta – and the emergence of the mud-caked Delta blues – and, later, to the crowded streets of poor urban areas, where jazz and ragtime music was as much an emotional release as it was a means to pay the rent.

American music valued improvisation, rather than the European ideals of virtuosity. It was gutsy and damaged and willing to push the cultural envelope.

The quest to examine what defines American music is as alive today as the music that inevitably enters the conversation. And it is this theme the Springfield Symphony Orchestra will present to audiences in its American Style concert to kick off its 2014-15 concert series.

“We are an American orchestra, so the notion of opening with an all-American program is a natural,” SSO Music Director and Conductor Peter Stafford Wilson said.

The program features work by crowd-pleasing American composers, including George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Notable among the line-up is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” – a piece, and a composer, that helped spark the whole conversation.

“Rhapsody in Blue” was commissioned by American bandleader and composer Paul Whitman, an early champion of jazz music, to be a part of his Experiment in Modern Music concert in February 1924. The goal of the concert was to demonstrate that the relatively new form of music, called jazz – the reputation of which was closely associated with the seedy underworld of Prohibition-era speakeasies where it could almost exclusively be heard – deserved to be regarded as a serious and sophisticated musical pursuit.

George Gershwin, given only five weeks to compose a contribution, pieced together “Rhapsody In Blue” as best he could in the time available, leaving his own piano part to be improvised during the world premiere. The piece was billed as a jazz concerto – written for orchestra and solo piano. While the instrumentation and form are “serious” in nature, it features themes that appear in a blues scale, and strong representations of stride and vaudeville piano – American styles which, up to this point, had hardly been uttered inside a concert hall.

Today, “Rhapsody” is regarded as one of the most important American works of the 20th century, having paved the way for a new generation of composers to introduce jazz elements in their own music. It was the daring of visionary composers like Gershwin and Whitman to push the musical envelope – now a universal mission in popular music – that was undeniably American.

“I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America,” Gershwin said of the work, “of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”

But there are personal experiences to be found here, too, and those are what keep audiences turning to “Rhapsody” again and again.

“The piece explores a part of the human experience,” piano soloist Awadagin Pratt, who will perform in the SSO’s American Style concert, explained. “In this case, varieties of uplifting feelings: happiness, joy, contentment. These feelings we hope to always have as part of the human experience, and so will always be current.”

Pratt’s orchestral performances include appearances with the New York Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra and the Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, National, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and St. Louis symphonies. He received shouts of praise from both the orchestra and the audience members at the end of his debut with the Springfield Symphony in 2000. Though his international appearances include four performances in Japan, as well as performances in Columbia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Poland, South Africa and Switzerland, it was an introduction to early American popular music that shaped his career.

“I began piano at age six,” Pratt remembered. “At some point along the way, I saw Leonard Bernstein on television. He was an inspiration for generations of young musicians, including myself.”

“Rhapsody in Blue” is often considered a musical landscape of New York City, and was used extensively in the 2013 film, “The Great Gatsby.” Yet, another piece in the American Style program will pay homage to the “old sport.”

John Harbison’s 1985 “Remembering Gatsby” illustrates the evolution of the American music conversation.

“You have music that is nostalgic, yet full of the energy of contemporary thought,” Wilson said. “By examining our roots, we can continue to evolve that uniquely American sound in a way that provides a touch of familiarity along with something new, something that pressed the envelope even further. It is a whimsical piece, but a very hummable tune.”

SSO rounds out the program with three dance variations from Bernstein’s Fancy Free, Richard Rodgers’ Slaughter on 10th Avenue and four dance episodes from Copland’s Rodeo.

And no celebration of American musical style would be complete without the inclusion of artistic collaboration.

The Gary Geis Dance Company, with a mission to bring the art of dance and dance education to the Springfield community, will collaborate on the four pieces from Copland’s Rodeo. The dancers will exemplify this familiar work with music that includes “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Night Waltz” and “Hoedown.”

“This program also represents my strong desire to collaborate with other local entities such as the Gary Geiss studio,” Wilson said. “So, [there are] lots of missions served with this exciting array of music.”

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra presents American Style at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 4 at the Clark State Community College Performing Arts Center, 300 S. Fountain Ave. in Springfield. For more information, please call 937.328.3874 or visit springfieldsym.org.

Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at Editor@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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