A Frenchman In America Plays Gershwin and Ravel

By Truman C. Wang

Pianist Hélène Grimaud. Photo credit: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (c) 2017

Pianist Hélène Grimaud. Photo credit: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra (c) 2017

What a delightful concert of Franco-American works that showcased their similarities rather than differences.   Ravel and Gershwin, two composers joined together for their love of jazz, enjoyed popular success in their respective take on the new popular genre, although Ravel’s G-Major Piano Concerto did not win public favor until the latter part of the Twentieth Century.

The LA Phil, admittedly still jetlagged from a tour of Asia, turned in an alert, winning performance with French conductor Lionel Bringuier at the helm and Bing Wang as the concertmaster.  Gershwin’s symphonic Cuban Overture heard the musicians producing brilliant colors and exciting Cuban dance rhythms accompanying an original melody by Gershwin.  The scoring of divided strings in the central melody is particularly fine for a composer who was determined to make his name in ‘serious’ music. 

Hélène Grimaud was the soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G-Major.  She brought her own individual stamp of crisp articulation and unsentimental phrasing to the piece, and played as one with the orchestra in the jazzy passagework as well as the lovely Adagio dialogue with the English horn.

In the program notes of An American in Paris from the Dec. 13, 1928 first performance by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society (today’s NY Phil), conducted by Walter Damrosch, we learn that –

“By its composer’s own confession, An American in Paris is an attempted reconciliation between two opposing schools of musical thought – a Pax Romana, as it were, imposed upon two customarily warring camps.  It is program music in that it engages to tell an emotional narrative; to convey, in terms of sound, the successive emotional reactions experienced by a Yankee tourist adrift in the City of Light.  It is absolute music as well, in that its structure is determined by considerations musical rather than literary or dramatic.  The piece, while not in strict sonata form, resembles an extended symphonic movement in that it announces, develops, combines, and recapitulates definite themes”

In this concert, some 90 years hence, maestro Lionel Bringuier, a Frenchman in America, gave a rollicking reading of An American in Paris that’s full of jazzy swagger and bubbly fun.   What was missing for me, perhaps, was the emotional content in an effort to beef up the work’s symphonic grandeur.  It was all very grand and lively, and full of city noises of Paris – the honking horns, shrieking trumpets and piccolo, plus memorable solo turns by the tuba and trumpet – but the ‘emotional narrative’ sounded oddly muted. 

Gershwin and Ravel are an unlikely pairing as far as composers go, but this concert showed – to paraphrase Shakespeare in “The Tempest” – jazz acquaints composers with strange bedfellows.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily. He studied Integrative Biology and Music at U.C. Berkeley.