Springfield Symphony highlights 20th century American classical

“Exultations” a composition by Yellow Springs native Drew Heminger will be featured. Photo: Christopher Duff

By Pat Suarez

Your humble author once mentioned to a conductor friend that an orchestra could present an entire season, at least a dozen concerts, of only 20th century American classical works and the audience would, at the end, be musically fulfilled, even thrilled. He pondered this for a bit and smiled, and this was a guy who had just won an award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for “Adventurous Programming,” peppering his preceding season with, you guessed it, 20th century American classical works. The conductor was John Ferritto and the orchestra was the Springfield Symphony, in 1974.

Even in the second decade of the following century, too many concert-goers and critics hold reservations about 20th century American classical works. Few people hold any such doubts about 20th century European composers such as Sir Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Why? Because they were from Europe, with its half-millennia compositional lead on the US. But wait! Ask the right pundits about Ralph Vaughan-Williams’s Seventh Symphony and you’ll get a sniffed, “That’s movie music!”

And therein lays the rub: Some of the brightest lights in 20th century American classical music became famous for and were identified, prominently, with music outside the scope of “classical” music. This really bugged Leonard Bernstein, but not George Gershwin, both of whose works the Springfield Symphony will showcase at the Clark State Performing Arts Center on March 24.

Also featured in the program will be “Exultations” by Yellow Springs native Drew Hemenger. An alumnus of Ohio Wesleyan as well as The Julliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, Hemenger’s compositions have been performed far and wide, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. His inclusion is part of Springfield Symphony Music Director Peter Stafford Wilson’s efforts to promote the work of emerging contemporary composers, and Hemenger’s work will fit in well alongside Bernstein and Gershwin.

George Gershwin was the embodiment of New York City’s glamorous musical scene and showed the teenage Lenny Bernstein what fame and glory could be (and eventually was) his. Gershwin, born in New York in 1898, was a prodigy who grew up in the Jazz Age – and he took to that American art form with an understanding that belied
his youth.

But Gershwin also loved European classical music and, especially, the music of Ravel (the admiration of Gershwin’s music by Ravel was mutual). It didn’t take long for Gershwin to toss jazz and classical music into a blender.

If all you know of Gershwin is “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris”, a surprising treasure trove awaits you, including the achingly romantic song, “The Man I Love,” “Swanee,” and “Porgy and Bess,” a full-length opera about a love-sick man to whom life throws constant road-blocks.

If the curious stew of jazz and classical is present in “Rhapsody in Blue,” it’s even more so in Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F,” written and debuted when Gershwin was 27.

Conductor Walter Damrosch attended the premier of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924, with Gershwin playing the piano. Damrosch immediately asked Gershwin to write full-scale concerto for piano and orchestra, but Gershwin was otherwise committed on Broadway and didn’t get to the task until 1925. In December of that year, Gershwin and Damrosch premiered the concerto to great acclaim by the public but confusion by the press, who couldn’t decide if what they’d heard was jazz or classical. To Stravinsky, the concerto was “genius,” praise shared by Schoenberg. Either way, Gershwin’s piano concerto is a work that stays with the listener long after its final chords have faded. The soloist for the Springfield Symphony will be Misha Dichter, a veteran of stages around the globe for five decades.

In 1947, Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and writer Arthur Laurents about adapting Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for the stage. This was an a-ha moment for Bernstein, who was 29, established on Broadway and with New York orchestras. He fully understood the potential positive windfall if done well. The original setup was a Catholic and Jewish family during Easter/Passover. The working title was “East Side Story.” Bernstein wanted the work to be an opera, but his collaborators quickly convinced him that the musical would find significantly more success on Broadway. Lenny agreed, but the group decided to shelve the project.

Five years later, Laurents and Bernstein were in Los Angeles and met for dinner. The problem of juvenile delinquent gangs came up (Brando’s “The Wild One” was in development at the time) and Bernstein suggested setting the story in Los Angeles. But, Laurents was familiar with Latino street gangs northwest of Central Park, countered with that alteration and “West Side Story” was born. The musical opened in September, 1957 to the acclaim that Bernstein envisioned.

In October, 1961, the movie by the same name found critical praise, a huge box office ($364 million in 2018 money) and ten Oscars, including Best Picture, the most ever for a musical film.

The final work on this Springfield Symphony will be the “Symphonic Dances West Side Story,” an adaptation to his score that Bernstein wrote in 1960. It included the film’s major songs, including “America,” “I Feel Pretty,” “Maria” and “Tonight”.

Looking back six decades, the music about whites, Puerto Ricans and senseless prejudice holds its own and seems still relevant. Sometimes, music can jar us into a consciousness that might otherwise never occur.

The Springfield Symphony’s Masterworks III will be performed at Kuss Auditorum at Clark State Performing Arts Center in Springfield on March 24 at 7:30 p.m. Opening Notes at 6:45pm in the Turner Studio; Performance Prelude at 6:45pm in the Davidson Grand Lobby. For information, call 937-328-3874 or visit

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Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at PatSuarez@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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