Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel and Creative Chair for Jazz Herbie Hancock launched the LA Phil’s 2011/12 season with a sparkling George Gershwin gala at Walt Disney Concert Hall in September. “This is the first time as a professional musician that I’ll be playing a piece that’s essentially classical music with jazz overtones with a symphony orchestra, and what a symphony orchestra it is!” marvels Hancock just before the concert, referring to his keyboard work in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Herbie Hancock, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil Celebrate Gershwin, featuring that classic piece as well as “An American in Paris” and Hancock’s unique improvisation on the great standard “Someone to Watch Over Me,” airs on THIRTEEN’s Great Performances Friday, January 6 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).
Since his early teens, Gershwin had been enamored with the music he heard uptown in Harlem, quickly becoming the center of the jazz universe. His first attempt at a serious composition, the mini-opera Blue Monday, a story about characters in a Harlem nightclub was a flop and received only one performance.
Upon seeing the opera, band leader Paul Whiteman was enthused enough to commission Gershwin to write a concert piece in the jazz idiom for a program of American music, and Gershwin, was emboldened to take it on. As he later explained, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”
Rhapsody was introduced on February 12, 1924, with the composer as soloist in Ferde Grofé’s orchestration for jazz band. The piece made an indelible mark on the history of American music, on the fraternity of serious composers and performers – many of whom were present at the premiere – and on Gershwin himself, for its enthusiastic reception encouraged him to other and more serious projects.
It was a trip to Paris that inspired Gershwin to work in earnest on a recent commission he had received from the New York Philharmonic, one that would capture in music the tumult of Paris’ streets with their distinctive taxi horns, and create a concert work that didn’t center on the piano.
Back in New York, Gershwin finished An American in Paris, which he subtitled “A Tone Poem for Orchestra.” In an interview in the August 18, 1928 edition of Musical America, he said of the work: “this new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is the most modern music I have ever attempted.” He also gave a brief “program note” of the work:
An American in Paris was wildly successful with audiences – and Hollywood – and established Gershwin as an original voice in concert halls worldwide, a voice that resonates to this day.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” was composed by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin for the musical Oh, Kay! (1926), where it was introduced by British star Gertrude Lawrence. It has been performed by numerous artists in both popular and jazz versions.
The Los Angeles Times noted admiringly, “The L.A. Philharmonic is noted for its flexibility, and the solo riffs were jazzy, authentic and unself-conscious, all of which is a real rarity in the symphonic world.”
Concurrently serving as Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (his third season), the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, Dudamel’s musical leadership spans three continents.
Beyond the forty-three weeks of his yearly schedule, he also guest conducts with a few of the world’s greatest orchestras each season. This season he returns to the Vienna Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic, along with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in Paris and the Israel Philharmonic. He also returns to La Scala, where he regularly conducts, for a performance of Mahler Symphony No. 2.
Herbie Hancock is a true icon of modern music. Throughout his explorations, he has transcended limitations and genres. His illustrious career has spanned five decades and 14 Grammys, including Album of the Year for River: The Joni Letters.
Hancock also maintains a thriving career outside the performing stage and recording studio. Recently named by the Los Angeles Philharmonic as Creative Chair for Jazz, he currently also serves as Institute Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, and he’s a founder of The International Committee of Artists for Peace. Hancock was made a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in July of 2011.
In 2010, Hancock released the critically-acclaimed, multiple Grammy-winning CD, Herbie Hancock’s The Imagine Project. Utilizing the universal language of music to express its central themes of peace and global responsibility, the ‘Imagine’ project features a stellar group of musicians.
Herbie Hancock, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil Celebrate Gershwin is a production of THIRTEEN in association with WNET, Bernard Fleisher Moving Images, WDR in cooperation with ARTE, Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, and C Major.
Great Performances is funded by The National Endowment for the Arts, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, Vivian Milstein, Jody and John Arnhold, The LuEsther T. Mertz Charitable Trust, The Starr Foundation, the Filomen M. D’Agostino Foundation, the Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, public television viewers, and PBS.
Herbie Hancock, Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil Celebrate Gershwin is directed by Enrique Sanchez Lansch. Producer: Bernhard Fleischer. Producer for WDR/ARTE: Lothar Mattner. For Great Performances, John Walker is producer; Bill O’Donnell is series producer; David Horn is executive producer.