On this day… September 26

I’ve decided to start up a new feature which will hopefully be informative, and fun. Basically, each day I look at a major classical event that happened on this day – be it a birth, death or premiere. Thanks to the wonderful place that is YouTube, where possible I’ll upload a video of a performance related to the topic. Added with a short biography or description of the event, it should be a fantastic way to get exposed to a large amount of music. Today, the stars seemed to align themselves, as today I can bring together two of the biggest names of American classical music.

George Gershwin was born today 110 years ago in Brooklyn, New York. More prolific in composing a number of songs that would become jazz standards (many recorded by Ella Fitzgerald in her 1959 Gershwin Songbook), perhaps his most famous work would be in the Classical genre.

Starting work in Tin Pan Alley as a Song Plugger for $15/week. He had his first published song when he was only 17, and in 1919 had his first national success with his song “Swannee.” In 1924, George collaborated with his older brother Ira to create the musical comedy “Lady Be Good” This was followed by 6 more, including Girl Crazy in 1930 which introduced the standard “I got rhythm” and Of thee I sing – the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer prize.

Gershwin’s first classical work, and arguably his most famous, was also written in 1924. Premiered by Paul Whiteman’s concert band, Rhapsodie in Blue has gone on to become a staple of most pianists repertoire. Other notable works of Gershwin’s in the classical style are An American in Paris, and the “folk opera” Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin spent some time in Paris, applying to study with composers such as Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel, both of whom turned him down, afraid that rigourous study would ruin his jazz-influenced style. That same jazz-influenced style would become one of the trademark American sounds of the 20th Century.

Another major figure on the American landscape shares an anniversary today. This date marks the 51st anniversary of the premiere of West Side Story, by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, with Arthur Laurents (book) and Stephen Sondheim (Lyrics). Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is set in Manhatten’s West Side/Hell’s Kitchen in the mid 1950’s and explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks. It has become famous for songs such as “Something’s Coming” “Maria” “America” “Somewhere” “Tonight” “I Feel Pretty” and others.

So for your viewing pleasure, I have three youtube clips for you. The first two feature Leonard Bernstein conducting and playing the piano at Royal Albert Hall in a 1976 performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsodie in Blue. Finally, we have a part of Bernstein’s own arrangement of tunes from West Side Story into a suite called “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.” This performance is by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra from Venezuela, also at the Royal Albert Hall, this time in 2007. This section is the Mambo, and features some of the most spectacular and exciting orchestral playing.

Part 2

Mambo from Symphonic Dances from West Side Story

So there you go, two fantastic American works (both performed in England) to bring on what I hope should be a fantastic weekend and hopefully the start of a fantastic series.

Edit: Let me know what you think of these pieces in the comments, or write about it in your own blog, and I’ll show some link love below.

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