If you can get over to Belgium, this’ll be almost as good as the The John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Performing at the 5 year-old, acoustically perfect, 2000-seat Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra under John’s baton will be offering a Saturday evening filled with old favorites:
If Die Trapp-Familie looks familiar to American audiences, it’s because 20th Century Fox‘s The Sound of Music shamelessly ripped off its costume and set design, its color palette, and many of its scene compositions. But what the American movie lacked was the Viennese charm and humor of the original, as well as its two immensely glamorous stars, German-born Ruth Leuwerik (1924-2016) and Austrian-born Hans Holt (1909-2001).
Its sequel, Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika, however, although filmed in location in the States, is wonderfully unfamiliar and well deserves a viewing: New York’s Lower East Side and the rich melting pot of immigrant life, as idealized by post-war European filmmakers. The struggle of the von Trapps as penniless political refugees isn’t ignored, but for the most part their story is told lightheartedly.
Pay attention, as well, to the music, especially in Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika. Grothe, a popular composer in Germany (he remained in Germany throughout the war, a reluctant Party member) composed a creditable Gershwin-like score for this sequel, particularly in the underscoring of a quiet scene between Georg and Maria gazing out at the Brooklyn Bridge while worrying about their family’s future (21:22). In German and English.
In November 1930, George and Ira Gershwin arrived in Hollywood to write the score for their first movie, Delicious. Besides the songs, George was asked to compose an instrumental piece to underscore a sequence where the film’s immigrant heroine wanders through a somewhat menacing Manhattan. In the end, only six minutes of what was originally entitled “Rhapsody In Rivets” was used but George, never wanting good work to go to waste, believed that his score deserved an additional life as his next work for the concert hall. Upon his return to New York, while also working on the score for Of Thee I Sing (which was to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932; charming setup and title song at 33:00) he completed the Second Rhapsody and prepared it for its Boston debut under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky (Leonard Bernstein’s mentor and first lover).
Pictured above is Lancashire-born conductor/organist/pianist Wayne Marshall, 57—with credits as Chief Conductor of WDR Funkhausorchester; Organist and Associate Artist of the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; Principal Guest Conductor of Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi; and as an acclaimed interpreter of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. His 2nd Rhapsody was snatched from the internet so here’s his Rhapsody in Blue with the Orchestre national d’Île-de-France.
The form most commonly heard today is a re-orchestrated version created fourteen years after Gershwin’s death. Since this version is the only one offered by the publisher, it has been almost impossible for orchestras to perform the piece as Gershwin envisioned it. However, the 1931 recording (above) of a run-through of the music, with Gershwin playing the solos and conducting the orchestra, gives some idea of the original version. Michael Tilson Thomas has been a promulgator of Gershwin’s original 1931 version. He sought out the original manuscript in the library as the basis of his 1985 recording and for his later performances.
“There are very few pieces I can say I’ve been waiting all my life to conduct, and this is one of them. In my, kind of, college years or whenever that was, I got the Simon Rattle LP and I kind of wore out the groove of those records and had to buy ‘em on CD…
“Of course it’s known for the hit tunes that have been extracted from it, but it’s much more than that… And I would even say that the most interesting music in the opera is the ariosos, the small pieces which link everything together and the incidental music… It’s really very ambitious… It’s George Gershwin at his most inventive, and as Gershwin was arguably the greatest tunesmith of the twentieth century, you’re looking at melodic material from the very very top drawer…”
Above: Nadine Benjamin sings “Summertime” in rehearsal. Poster above is actually from the fabulous 2019 Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy and Bess.
Anthony Tommasini in his New York Times review of the English National Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess described my bonny as the “excellent John Wilson, who led a performance that had sweep, shape and vitality, as well as rarer qualities: precision and restraint”. Here’s our John from this past summer rehearsing “Summertime“. Performances of ENO’s Porgy and Bess run to 17 November.
…being wildly applauded in this photo of opening night. Lest we forget, it was The Old Man who directed the very first production of P&B. (Oh, he never let me forget it.) That’s him behind Gershwin in the goggle glasses.
Of Porgy and Bess’s premiere, composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote: “Gershwin’s lack of understanding of all the major problems of form, of continuity, and of serious or direct expression is not surprising in view of the impurity of his musical sources and his frank acceptance of the same. The material is straight from the melting pot. At best it is a piquant but highly unsavory stirring-up together of Israel, Africa and the Gaelic Isles… I do not like fake folklore, nor bittersweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor gefilte-fish orchestration.” The 1934 production ran for 124 performances—for opera, a huge success, but by Broadway standards, a flop.
“When someone in the story is famous, every moment of his existence has, for people who care, an aura of significance, and there will always be people with a quasi-authority who think they know things they could not possibly know, simply because they have a lot of information and curiosity and a sense of entitlement to “the truth” about George Gershwin, as if sufficient obsession and possession of a lot of verifiable facts can earn both entitlement to and knowledge of the unknowable.”
from The Memory of All That (Broadway Books, 2012) by Katharine Weber, Kay Swift’s granddaughter
I don’t think a clip exists, but 3 Preludes was on the program of The John Wilson Orchestra’s 2015 BBC Proms show Salute to Sinatra—yes I swear, that was the theme of that show which featured Seth MacFarlane, on account of he can sing like Brian the Dog. The connection is that the version my clever John and his orchestra played is the Nelson Riddle arrangement of Gershwin’s 3 Preludes, Nelson Riddle having been one of Frank Sinatra’s most important musical collaborators. Such a stretch, pet.
But here’s Riddle’s arrangement…and here’sGeorge Gershwin himself. Compare and contrast.