Harmonie Ensemble: Gershwin
“An American in Paris”
“Concerto in F”
“Overture to “Of Thee I Sing”
Harmonie Ensemble / New York
Steven Richman, Conductor, Music Director
Lincoln Mayorga, Piano
Dr. Roberta E. Zlokower
September 15, 2016
This CD is monumental and rarified. As George Gershwin’s compositions have been praised for years on these pages, for example in New York City Ballet’s Who Cares? and the Broadway show, An American in Paris, I have heard several original and historical arrangements and variations. Yet, Harmonie Ensemble / New York, with its Founder, Music Director, and Conductor, Steven Richman, have unearthed Gershwin’s original manuscripts for An American in Paris and Concerto in F for this significant album. Even more significant is the first recording of Gershwin’s radio version of the overture to Of Thee I Sing. Harmonie Ensemble also uses the 1930’s Roy Bargy orchestration for Three Preludes. Pianist, Lincoln Mayorga, who was staff pianist for Disney Studios, and who has performed on hundreds of international concert stages, exudes sweeping rapture and stunning, tonal texture in the three Concerto tracks. This is a must-own album for all Gershwin fans and aficionados. (Read about George Gershwin here.)
All compositions by George Gershwin, arranged by Steven Richman and Harmonie Ensemble.
#1 – Overture to “Of Thee I Sing”, 1931 – Gershwin's original radio version of the overture to Of Thee I Sing, which, in its time, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the composer, as well as George F. Kaufman, who wrote the book, and Ira Gershwin, who wrote the lyrics, grips the listener in its streamlined, windy refrains. The opening, punctuated trumpet-string dynamics, the rapidly swirling melodies, and Concertmaster, Kurt Nikkanen’s extraordinary violin solo immediately illustrate the mastery of Conductor Steven Richman’s Harmonie Ensemble. It should be noted that Mr. Nikkanen has been very favorably reviewed on these pages, for many years, as Concertmaster of City Ballet. After over eight decades, this music remains refreshingly contemporary, cosmopolitan, and swell.
#4 – ”Concerto in F”, 1925 (Allegro agitato) – At the moment this third movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F began, I was already taken aback with the incomparable dynamics of Richman and Mayorga’s collaborative arrangement, based on Gershwin’s own notes. But, once again, superb, serendipitous musicality abounded. The listener is transported on a whirlwind blast to the past, dashing about Macy’s and Rockefeller Center and then chasing a cab. An interlude offers cocktails and oysters, all in spellbinding context and tones. This arrangement is dramatically imbued, with flashes of flutes in the midst of bristling strings, dervish, undulating orchestrals, Mr. Mayorga’s spectacular piano solo with a mind of its own, a crashing gong that pauses the musical thrills, a filmatic theme with yearning soulfulness, and a fiery finale, with timpani, piano, and full Ensemble. This music must be heard live, and soon.
#6 – ”Three Preludes”, 1926 (Andante con moto e poco rubato) –Roy Bargy, pianist and arranger for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, orchestrated Gershwin’s piano pieces, called Three Preludes, for a 1930’s Hollywood Bowl concert. Mr. Richman’s concept to record the lesser known instrumental version of the Preludes is eloquent. I chose the central “Andante” Prelude with its bluesy, breezy introduction that takes us past Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, a deserted automat, and a cop swinging a stick. A sultry saxophone solo is lonely and melancholy. Brassy flashes with dissonance suddenly shift to a string ensemble dawn. The professionalism of this Ensemble and Mr. Richman is beyond impressive. Nuanced tonal details give this album noteworthy singularity.
#8 – An American in Paris, 1928 – As Gershwin’s historical notes were used by Mr. Richman and his Ensemble for the final track, An American in Paris, which the composer based on his inspirational travels to Paris and the music of his friend, Maurice Ravel, and Debussy, as well, once again we hear spellbinding orchestrations we’ve never heard before. Conductor Walter Damrosch commissioned this symphonic poem, renowned for a rhapsodic ballet sequence in the 1951 Gene Kelly film of the same title, and now known for a Broadway show. It unfolds with actual French taxi horns and a dramatic narrative, illustrated musically. The listener is enthralled with Mr. Nikkanen’s surreal violin solo, with the start-stop phrasing of Champs-Elysée traffic, and with jazzy emotionality of the dreaming, swooning, romancing, playful, youthful Gershwin. No frills or fanciness in Gershwin’s original arrangement, but rather conflict, longing, and the sweet strings of going home. This is an album I will revisit often, with Paris and Gershwin on my mind.
Kudos to Harmonie Ensemble / New York, to Steven Richman, to Lincoln Mayorga, to the late Roy Bargy, and, especially, to the timeless George Gershwin.