Thibaudet Plays Gershwin

Sunday, August 4, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Bernstein: Overture to Candide

Gershwin: Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra

Respighi: The Pines of Rome

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Overture to Candide

Composed: 1956
Instrumentation: 2 flutes plus piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (snare drum, tenor drum, bass drum, crash cymbals, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel), harp, and strings

After the success of On the Town (1944) and Wonderful Town (1953), Bernstein looked to Voltaire’s novel Candide for inspiration for his third musical. Originally adapted by Lillian Hellman for Bernstein, the comedic production follows the noble youth Candide’s rather disastrous journey through the “best of all possible worlds.”  The initial New York run closed after only 73 performances as audiences were unsure just how to categorize the work: was it a musical or an opera?  Bernstein later tried to answer this question himself:

Candide is beginning to look to me like a real fine old-fashioned operetta, or a comic opera… But not a musical comedy surely? … Of course it’s a kind of operetta, or some version of musical theater that is basically European but which Americans have long ago accepted and come to love.

A 1973 reworking that lightened up both the libretto and the music proved to be more popular, enjoying a three-year Broadway run.

Even through the difficult beginnings for Candide, the overture garnered repeated praise and quickly became a popular addition to the concert repertoire. It interweaves many the musical numbers from the drama, including the opening “Westphalian Fanfare,” the sweeping melody from “Oh, Happy We,” and the energetic theme (made famous by Dick Cavett) from “Glitter and Be Gay.”


George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Concerto in F Major for Piano and Orchestra

Composed: 1925
Instrumentation: Solo piano, 2 flutes plus piccolo, 2 oboes plus English horn, 2 clarinets plus bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 4 percussion (glockenspiel, xylophone, woodblock, tam-tam, triangle, snare drum, whip, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, bass drum), and strings

In January 1924, bandleader Paul Whiteman announced Gershwin’s participation in a concert to take place the following month in New York which he called “An Experiment in Modern Music.”  The announcement was the first that Gershwin had heard about the concert, but he willingly undertook the project anyway, intrigued with Whiteman’s exploration of “symphonic jazz.”  With the help of orchestrator Ferde Grofé, Gershwin composed his Rhapsody in Blue in a matter of weeks, and it became an instant sensation at the February 1924 premiere. Among those in the audience that evening was the New York Symphonic Society conductor Walter Damrosch, who was thrilled with the piece and immediately approached Gershwin to commission another like it. After some discussion, Gershwin agreed to write a piano concerto for Damrosch, who in turn guaranteed at least seven performances of the new piece with Gershwin himself as soloist. Gershwin saw the commission as an opportunity to truly meld the structural aspects of classical music with the idiom of jazz and to establish himself as a “serious” composer. He even altered the original title of the work, New York Concerto, to emphasize its classical form and to place it in the tradition which had produced so many great works of the same genre in the previous 150 years. Unlike Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin orchestrated the Concerto in F himself, later describing the decision as one designed to prove something both to himself and to the world:

Many persons had thought that the Rhapsody was only a happy accident. Well, I went out, for one thing, to show them that there was more where that had come from. I made up my mind to do a piece of absolute music…. The Concerto would be unrelated to any program…. I learned a great deal from the experience, particularly in the handling of instruments in combination.

The premiere of the concerto in December 1925 solidified Gershwin’s place among the greats of American composition. Damrosch couldn’t have been happier with the piece, expressing what Gershwin did for jazz with the concerto with gushing enthusiasm:

Gershwin is the prince who has taken Cinderella by the hand and openly proclaimed her a Princess to the astonished world, no doubt to the fury of her envious sisters.

One reviewer wrote, “Of all those writing music of today, he alone actually expresses us” – words that we can still relate to almost 95 years later.

The concerto begins with a trademark riff on the timpani—perhaps recalling the unusual beginning of Beethoven’s violin concerto. The open fifths of this introduction and the melody and Charleston rhythm that follows immediately set up an “American” sound for the concerto. Gershwin himself describes the opening movement as “quick and pulsating, representing the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life.”  The sultry breeziness of the piano’s opening theme, full of syncopation and off-beat accents, is hard to forget. In the middle of this very free sonata form movement, a broad melody led by the strings deep in their register seems to counteract the activity and excitement that surrounds it.

Gershwin describes the D-flat major second movement as having “a poetic nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues.”  Indeed, the centerpiece in the movement is a bluesy lament in the trumpet which the piano eventually transforms into a promenade melody. New melodies seem to emerge from the background, appearing in different forms with each repetition.

In the finale, a boisterous and virtuosic beginning with madly repeating percussive notes in the piano unexpectedly recalls the main melancholy theme from the first movement, now marcato and full of passion. The movement is, according to Gershwin, “an orgy of rhythms,” with accent patterns of five beats keeping the pace in high gear. A melody from the second movement is also recalled, and a dramatic use of the gong ushers in a reprise of the melancholy theme (and the opening timpani motto) one last time in full orchestra.


Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)

The Pines of Rome

Composed: 1923-24
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes plus English horn, 2 clarinets plus bass clarinet, 2 bassoons plus contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion (bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, small cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, ratchet, glockenspiel, recorded bird sounds), harp, piano, celesta, organ, and strings, plus offstage trumpet and 6 buccine. (The buccina was a curved brass instrument played by the ancient Roman army and no longer exists. The buccine parts tonight are played on 2 horns, 2 trumpets and 2 trombones, all positioned offstage.)

If Gershwin was using his concerto as a method for cutting his teeth in the relatively unfamiliar art of orchestration, Respighi was taking his already proven skills in creating swirling arrays of symphonic color to the next level with The Pines of Rome. He had studied orchestration with the Russian master of timbral effects, Rimsky-Korsakov, and by the 1920s had established his skill as a composer of vivid tone poems.

The Pines of Rome is the second of Respighi’s so-called “Roman trilogy,” which began with The Fountains of Rome (1916) and ended with The Festivals of Rome (1928). Pines is perhaps Respighi’s most acclaimed work, despite a rocky beginning. At the premiere in Rome on December 14, 1924 (and again at the repeat performance on December 28), the hall was packed, anticipation was high, and the mood was described by Respighi’s wife Elsa as “electric.”  At the end of the first movement, where the trumpet playfully repeats a “wrong note” written in the score, the audience began a chorus of boos and hisses that threatened to stop the concert altogether. One audience member even shouted, “It must not go on!”  But the orchestra continued and won the audience over. By the end of the piece, according to Elsa, there was “a frantic applause such as had never before been heard in the Augusteo.”  Later, when a friend suggested that he change the end of the first movement, Respighi laughed, “Well, let them boo… what do I care?”

The piece, played without a break, is full of vibrant moments. Respighi himself gave the following brief, programmatic descriptions of each movement:

  1. Children are at play in the pine groves of the Villa Borghese; they dance ‘round in circles. They play soldiers, marching and fighting; they are wrought up by their own cries like swallows at evening; they come and go in swarms.
  2. We see the shadows of the pine trees fringing the entrance to a catacomb. From the depth rises the sound of a mournful chant, floating through the air like a solemn hymn and gradually and mysteriously disappearing.
  3. III. A quiver runs through the air: the pine trees of the Janiculum stand distinctly outlined in the clear light of a full moon. A nightingale is singing.
  4. Misty dawn on the Appian Way: solitary pine trees guarding the tragic landscape; the muffled, ceaseless rhythm of unending footsteps. The poet has a fantastic vision of bygone glories: trumpets blare and, in the brilliance of the newly risen sun, a consular army bursts forth towards the Sacred Way, mounting in triumph to the Capitoline Hill.

The whirling march of the first movement, full of playful glissandi, aptly accompanies the children’s games. The eerie chant of the catacombs uses unusual combinations of instruments playing in octaves, including a flute and bassoon line. The magical tranquility of the subdued Janiculum section must be considered one of Respighi’s finest achievements (the score even calls for a recording of a nightingale’s song to be played towards the end). A long, gradual crescendo marks the approach of the distant army in the final movement, and the footsteps are represented with timpani strikes on every eighth beat until the very end.


Program notes by Jon Kochavi