BLUE HEAVEN: Orion Weiss energises an icon

One of Naxos’s June 2013 new releases in the Naxos American Classics series features the music of George Gershwin and the redoubtable combination of conductor JoAnn Falletta, piano soloist Orion Weiss and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Rhapsody in Blue needs little introduction as the work that became the pioneering matchmaker between jazz and classical music, although this exuberantly thoughtful performance might have you seeing it in a new light. It’s complemented on the disc by snappy examples of music from two of Gershwin’s stage works (Strike up the Band and Porgy and Bess), plus a little–known gem, his rarely performed Promenade.

Listen to excerpts from Rhapsody in Blue
This release is simultaneously available in the Blu–ray Audio format.
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How Gershwin changed American music forever
By JoAnn Falletta
JoAnn Falletta and producer Tim Handley agree on the recording strategy

What is the most recognizable music ever composed on American soil? Surely it must be that incomparable clarinet high–wire glissando that opens George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue! We listen breathlessly, willing the intrepid clarinetist to "make it to the top", each one in their own individual style, and we have to smile as the soloist swings into the jazzy tune that follows, filled with a bluesy charm and quite a bit of attitude! That solo not only ushered in the most beloved piece in the American repertoire, but it also created for the first time a true marriage of classical music and jazz, changing the face of American music forever.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is the centerpiece of a new NAXOS CD featuring pianist Orion Weiss and the Buffalo Philharmonic conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Orion adds his own accent to this iconic piece, bringing both his youthful energy, dazzling technique and thoughtful reflection to the work in an interpretation that is fresh, vibrant and filled with humor.

The origin of the Rhapsody is the stuff of legends. Band leader Paul Whiteman conceived the notion of an "experiment in modern music" – an exploration of how jazz and serious classical music could be combined. He announced that George Gershwin would be writing this experimental work in the New York Tribune on January 3, 1924. It must have been quite a shock for Gershwin reading the Tribune on that day – Paul Whiteman had forgotten to tell him anything about it! Gershwin had just over a month to compose this "grand experiment", as the concert date had already been set for February 12. The rest is history – the relatively unknown twenty–five year old composer wrote a piece that catapulted him into fame and has won the hearts of millions of people, all over the world. (And, since February 12 marked Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, the date in 1924 was proclaimed the emancipation of jazz!)

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Performance of PROMENADE

Gershwin followed success with success. His groundbreaking opera, Porgy and Bess, not only was what many consider the first great American opera, but also broke through barriers of racial oppression and welcomed African–Americans to the opera stage. Set in the beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina, the opera was a telling depiction of the life of the slave population in the steamy south, filled with violence, tenderness and extraordinary music. Gershwin fashioned his own orchestral "concert version" of the opera, which is surprisingly little known. The BPO and I were delighted to record his Catfish Row, a musical tone poem encapsulating the both the gritty visceral power and the poignant poetry of the opera.

Gershwin also brought incredible music to the Broadway stage, and his overture for Strike up the Band is a stunning example of his ability to write unforgettable tunes. From "Embraceable You" to "I’ve Got a Crush on You" to "S’Wonderful" to the infectiously delicious title song, this is Gershwin at his best! We included one extra little gem – the rarely performed Promenade – a moment of sheer fun for Orion and our principal clarinetist John Fullam (who incidentally navigated the treacherous Rhapsody opening with absolute panache). This delightful piece actually is drawn from a movie score – the 1937 film Shall We Dance? – starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

George Gershwin died unexpectedly at the tragically young age of 38. In his short life, however, he singlehandedly gave a dignity, respect and relevance to jazz that has truly defined American music. The musicians of the Buffalo Philharmonic have this music deep in their DNA; it is music that we have relished since childhood; it is music that explains us; it is music that, in a real way, celebrates American optimism and hope; it is music that never fails to delight and inspire us.

The Artists
Orion WeissJoAnn FalletaBuffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
© Mark Dellas

JoAnn Falletta serves as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony in the United States and principal conductor of the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland. She has guest conducted over a hundred orchestras in North America, and many of the most prominent orchestras in Europe, Asia, South America and Africa and is the principal guest conductor of the Phoenix Symphony and Brevard Music Center of North Carolina. Recipient of the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award, winner of the Stokowski Competition, and the Toscanini, Ditson and Bruno Walter conducting awards, Falletta has also received eleven ASCAP awards and serves on the US National Council on the Arts. A champion of American music, she has presented nearly five hundred works by American composers including over one hundred world premières. Her Naxos recordings include the double GRAMMY® Award–winning disc of works by John Corigliano and GRAMMY® nominated discs of works of Tyberg, Dohnányi, Fuchs, Schubert, Respighi, Gershwin, Hailstork and Holst.

© Leslie van Stelten

Pianist Orion Weiss holds a leading position among American musicians of his generation. His impressive list of awards includes the Classical Recording Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award, the Gilmore Young Artist Award, an Avery Fisher Career Grant, the Gina Bachauer Scholarship at The Juilliard School and the Mieczysław Munz Scholarship. He has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and in summer concerts with the New York Philharmonic. As a recitalist and chamber musician, he has appeared across the United States at venues and festivals including Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Ravinia Festival, the Bard Music Festival, and Spivey Hall. A native of Lyndhurst, OH, Orion Weiss attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with Paul Schenly. He graduated from The Juilliard School, where he studied with Emanuel Ax.

© Enid Bloch Photography

Founded in 1935, the GRAMMY® Award–winning Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of music director JoAnn Falletta, is Buffalo’s leading cultural ambassador and presents more than 120 Classics, Pops and Youth Concerts each year. Since 1940, the orchestra’s permanent home has been Kleinhans Music Hall, a national historic landmark, designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and one of the finest concert halls in the United States. The BPO has toured widely across the United States, Canada and Europe, including the Florida Friends Tour with JoAnn Falletta in March 2010. The BPO performed at Carnegie Hall as a participant in the Spring For Music festival in 2013, as one of five orchestras selected from a national field. This was the orchestra’s 24th appearance at Carnegie Hall and its first since its performance there under JoAnn Falletta in June 2004. Over the decades, the BPO has matured in stature under some leading conductors, including William Steinberg, Josef Krips, Lukas Foss, Michael Tilson Thomas, Maximiano Valdés, Semyon Bychkov and Julius Rudel. During the tenure of JoAnn Falletta the BPO has rekindled its distinguished history of radio broadcasts and recordings, including the release of 24 new CDs of a highly diverse repertoire on the Naxos and Beau Fleuve labels. The Philharmonic’s Naxos recording of composer John Corigliano’s Mr Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (8.559331), featuring soprano Hila Plitmann, won GRAMMYs® in two categories of the three for which it was nominated: Classical Vocal Performance and Classical Contemporary Composition.

Companion Release
George GERSHWIN (1898–1937)
Concerto in F • Rhapsody No. 2 • I Got Rhythm Variations

"The Second Rhapsody is very well played and conducted by the team of Orion Weiss and JoAnn Falletta, and comes across as a work of impressive brilliance and depth" – 9/9 rating

"All these pieces get snappy performances in well-balanced, clear recordings: an enjoyable collection." – Gramophone

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