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Classical Connection review: May 12, Fort Wayne Philharmonic

Music by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and George Gershwin (1898-1937) was featured in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic's final Masterworks concert of the abbreviated 2022-23 season, which was also the final concert scheduled by the orchestra for Fort Wayne's historic Embassy Theatre. The concert was rescheduled from May 13 to May 12, as part of the new contract between the musicians and Philharmonic management that ended a labor dispute which had begun last November and ended in April of this year.

The "connection" between Prokofiev and Gershwin is that both had Russian ancestry and each man was a virtuoso pianist. Prokofiev wrote a number of works for the theater, including operas and ballets, and for several movies Gershwin primarily wrote for Broadway productions and for several movies. Prokofiev left Russia shortly after the Russian revolution of 1917, spending considerable time in the United States and Europe, returning periodically to the new Soviet Union in the early 1930s and then settling there permanently in the late 1930s. Gershwin's family left Russia during the pogroms or persecutions against Jews under the imperial/czarist government and they settled in New York City.

The Philharmonic, conducted by Andrew Constantine, performed music from two works by Prokofiev. The concert began with two excerpts from Prokofiev's 1921 opera "The Love of Three Oranges," with the Philharmonic musicians joined by members of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which resulted in a very large ensemble that worked quite well together.

We heard "Les Ridicules" and the popular "Marche," both two relatively short but colorfully orchestrated and complex pieces that really showcased the skills of both the veteran and the young musicians. The members of the Youth Orchestra literally sat side-by-side. In a way, it was unfortunate that we didn't get to hear more of the orchestral selections from Prokofiev's satirical work, which he wrote on a commission from the old Chicago Opera Company, using a French text. This music shows Prokofiev at his best in many ways and it is also challenging music to perform. Constantine provided skillful leadership in guiding the musicians through the musical "maze" of the two intricate pieces. It was often very loud and almost overwhelming in intensity, challenging the acoustical shell and the Embassy's natural acoustics. This is one reason that this writer believes the acoustics of the Auer Performance Hall at Purdue Fort Wayne, where the orchestra has occasionally performed in the past, will probably be better suited to such noisy works and give more clarity to the orchestra's overall sound. The Rhinehart Music Building will be the Philharmonic's primary home beginning with the 2023-24 season.

Prokofiev's health was failing by 1951. He had suffered a serious fall in 1947 and his doctors had actually restricted his hours of work. He still continued to work, if more slowly and deliberately, and had a number of projects that he tried to complete before time literally ran out on him. Among his final projects was his seventh symphony, a four-movement work which has been called nostalgic and poignant. He wrote with considerable feeling and emotion in preparing a work aimed at a children's audience in Moscow; the work definitely has its youthful moments and displays Prokofiev's ability to write for children. Yet there is much "beneath the surface" in this music and the similarities to the piece he wrote for the "Midnight" scene of the ballet "Cinderella" suggest, as Andrew Constantine told the preview audience, that time was literally coming to an end for Prokofiev. By a strange twist of face, Prokofiev died the exact same day as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, on March 5, 1953. Prokofiev had been persuaded to write a short but upbeat finale to the symphony, but he made it clear to his friends that he preferred the original ending, which is quieter and more subdued. This performance, like that in most concerts and recordings, used Prokofiev's preferred ending.

There were many fine performances during the seventh symphony. I particularly noticed the impressive playing by the cellos again and again. In addition, we had the recurring importance of the harpist. The brass, winds, and percussion all contributed well to the overall performance. This is a very challenging work and Constantine guided the Philharmonic through all the "twists and turns" along the way. There is a unity between the first and fourth movements in which the composer uses similar themes that suggest his impending fate due to his poor health.

Prokofiev only lived to be 61 years of age, which was actually much better than George Gershwin's 38-year lifespan. Gershwin became an established Broadway songwriter, often collaborating with his brother Ira. Along the way, George had an ongoing love of classical musical. Friends were sometimes surprised to hear George playing music by Johann Sebastian Bach on the piano, which he really enjoyed. As early as 1919, Gershwin had written a string quartet and displayed considerable skill as he returned to more classical music forms. There was even a one-act opera, "Blue Monday," which he wrote in 1922. The real breakthrough came in 1924, when bandleader Paul Whiteman asked Gershwin to write a concert work that would combine jazz and classical music. This was intended for an all-American concert in New York City's Aeolian Hall in February of 1924.

Since Gershwin didn't have much time, and he hadn't yet studied orchestration, he prepared a four-hand piano reduction of the score and he included considerable solo passages for the piano. The orchestration went to Whiteman's staff orchestrator, Ferde Grofe, who prepared the original version for jazz band and then a subsequent version for full orchestra. It's interesting to note that, of all the works performed in the concert in 1924, "Rhapsody in Blue" emerged as the real triumph of the program. Gershwin himself played the solos and soon after he joined Whiteman and the band in making the first acoustical recording (without microphones) of the music, although there were numerous cuts so that the work would fit on two sides of a 12-inch 78-rpm disc. A subsequent electrical recording of "Rhapsody" had the same cuts.

Our soloist on Friday evening was the Russian pianist Ilya Yakushev, a true virtuoso and showman, who has given numerous performances of Gershwin's music and who clearly has an understanding and appreciation of these uniquely American works. It was one of the best performances I have heard of "Rhapsody in Blue" and there was, overall, a good balance between the piano and the orchestra. There were a few places where the orchestra overshadowed the piano, perhaps due to the Embassy's acoustical arrangements. For the most part, we had a great musical partnership. High points were the very challenging clarinet solo that opens the piece, skillfully performed with great flair and enthusiasm as clarinetist Campbell MacDonald, and the sensitive violin solos by concertmaster Violetta Todorova. The delightful performance resulted in a huge standing ovation, which was well-deserved in this instance.

By 1928, Gershwin's musical skills had dramatically improved. Yakushev himself said that the "Concerto in F," a true three-movement piano concerto with blues and jazz elements in a classical structure, is a far superior work for piano and orchestra that was premiered in late 1925. (I was told years ago by a friend of Gershwin that he was an excellent pianist, who could easily improvise.) Gershwin had visited Paris, France, and had hoped to study with Maurice Ravel or Igor Stravinsky, who both refused because they basically felt they couldn't teach him anything new or that he didn't already possess. Gershwin loved Paris, as did so many in the 1920s, and he took in all of its music, art, architecture, and artistic expressions. For Gershwin, Paris was a real contrast to New York City. He even acquired some Paris taxicab horns, since those different sounds were part of the "atmosphere" of the French capital and were utilized in creating some really unique color in the music. He imagined a new work, for orchestra alone, that would capture a New Yorker's visit to Paris. He had discovered that the French had even embraced American jazz, while maintaining their own unique musical expressions. The romantic qualities of Paris were not lost on the young Gershwin. Gershwin put together quite a variety of musical themes that utilize both jazz and classical traditions.

"An American in Paris," which closed the Philharmonic's final concert in the Embassy Theatre, has been one of the most popular classical concert works of the twentieth century. It has been frequently performed and recorded. Gershwin himself participated in the very first recording of the symphonic poem, which was made in 1929 by RCA Victor with Nathaniel Shilkret conducting members of the Philadelphia Orchestra; Shilkret discovered they needed someone to play the celesta, the "magical" keyboard instrument that adds special color to the piece, so Gershwin (who was present at the recording session) ended up playing that part in the performance.

The work is wonderfully orchestrated by Gershwin, who had studied orchestration after "Rhapsody" and was able to use his new knowledge in the "Concerto in F." The work gives ample opportunities for various soloists in the orchestra. The Philharmonic has more than its share of qualified and competent musicians, many of which had wonderful solos in this performance. Once again, Violetta Todorova shined in the memorable violin solos. I have always enjoyed the tuba solo that Gershwin wrote and that was wonderfully played by Chance Trottman-Huiet. At the very end, Constantine spent time acknowledging the many very fine solos by orchestra members.

We almost didn't make it to this concert since the date was changed and we didn't receive any notification. I only learned that the concert would take place on May 12 by seeing an announcement on Facebook. Anyway, we will look forward to a full season of concerts starting next October, when the orchestra moves to Purdue Fort Wayne.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.