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Gerald Carpenter: Santa Barbara Symphony Salutes America

Its ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ program will be performed Saturday and Sunday in the Granada Theatre

By Gerald Carpenter, Noozhawk Contributing Writer | Published on 02.10.2012

The Santa Barbara Symphony, under Music Director Nir Kabaretti, will offer a rarity, even in this enlightened age — an all-American program that includes not a single march by John Philip Sousa.

George Gershwin elegantly embodied the Art Deco principle in American music.

George Gershwin elegantly embodied the Art Deco principle in American music.

At 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in theGranada Theatre, the symphony will play concerts that it is calling “Rhapsody in Blue” after the shortest work on the schedule.

The program will begin with a remarkable piece,Ansel Adams: America, a symphonic tribute to the great photographer, by the father-son team of Dave and Chris Brubeck, incorporating the inimitable Brubeck melodies, lushly scored, with images by Adams.

On the same bill, George Gershwin’s first — and best-known — “classical” composition, Rhapsody in Blue, with rising keyboard star Terrence Wilson as piano soloist. The concert will conclude with what is by any measure the Mount Rushmore of the American symphonic literature,Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2 (1897-1909).

Ansel Adams: America, in fact, has its own Web site, on which it is described as “a symphonic tribute saluting one of America’s most cherished artists. The 22-minute, one-movement piece fully integrates sweeping melodies with 102 striking images of or by Ansel. Few people realize that Adams trained to be a classical musician, a fact that greatly influenced the work. It has consistently played to full houses, and has succeeded in its mission to bring new and larger audiences to orchestra concerts. This is the first time that permission has been given by the Ansel Adams Trust to allow his masterful American photographs to be used in a concert setting.”

It also, I should imagine, represents a considerable investment of faith and funds on the part of the symphony — faith in America and their audience; funds that are never easy to come by.

Rhapsody in Blue was commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman in 1923, and first performed Feb. 12, 1924, in Aeolian Hall in New York. The concert was billed as “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Whiteman conducted his band, since the work was originally written for solo piano and jazz band, and Gershwin himself was the soloist. It was an immediate sensation, and when it was rescored for full orchestra, two years later, that was a huge hit as well.

The scoring of both versions was done by Ferde Grofé (of Grand Conyon Suitefame), but after that, Gershwin did his own orchestrations, at least for his classical works. There is absolutely nothing mysterious about its undying popularity. From the gleaming ebony hook of its solo clarinet opening to the percussive, feets-do-your-stuff, finish, it is glorious, sensuous perfection.

Ives has never quite shaken his reputation as an irascible Cranky-Yankee, and with good reason. Few would be willing sit through a piece like his Piano Sonata No.2 “Concord, Mass.” except out of patriotic duty. But let us be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I myself have never been a devoted fan of the Ives oeuvre in its entirety, but I adore The Unanswered Question and the String Quartet No.1 (1896), while I am totally blown away by the Symphony No. 2.

Partisans of Ives’ music tend to describe it in terms that emphasize its alarming aspects (With friends like these …). Michael Tilson Thomas, for instance, admits, “I was first attracted to Ives by his dissonant later works, and it took me awhile to realize the Romantic spirit that pervaded them, and I proceeded back to the source of this spirit in his earlier tonal works. No better example of this exists than theSecond Symphony, when we hear Ives writing a large work pretty much on his own for the first time.” Moved and seconded — the Ives has it.

Tickets to the concerts are available from the Granada box office at 1214 State St. or 805.899.2222, or click here to order online. Students with valid student ID can purchase $10 tickets in advance at the box office.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter:@noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews.

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