1924 Rhapsody in Blue

George Gershwin was playing billiards one evening in January 1924 when his brother Ira ran over, pointing to a short article in the newspaper.  It described an upcoming concert, titled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” for which George was composing and performing a new jazz concerto.  At 6am the next morning, George picked up the phone and called the concert’s organizer and conductor, Paul Whiteman.  Paul’s words were to the effect, “George, don’t you remember, we talked about this?  Well, you better get started – the concert’s in early February and we start rehearsals in a few weeks.”  Thus began work on one of the most inspired pieces in music history.

George, at age 25, had already been in the music business for ten years.  He worked in New York as a “song plugger,” sight-reading piano music for potential customers, in the years before radio and widespread music recordings.  He’d had a mega-hit as a young composer with the song Swanee, which led to an early career as a composer of musicals.  Paul Whiteman had a knack for identifying talent, and his bet on Gershwin may have been his best ever.

Gershwin composed Rhapsody in Blue non-stop over the course of the next three weeks, living at home with his sister, two brothers, and parents.  Whiteman’s chief arranger, Ferde Grofé, would visit their home daily, to orchestrate from George’s sketches, writing out the notes for each instrumentalist in Whiteman’s band, while George pushed ahead with the overall composition and its solo piano part. 

Nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the last note, the rehearsals began, with the concert taking place in Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924.  The who’s who of New York’s music world attended, including stars such as Godowsky, Heifetz, Kreisler, Rachmaninoff, and John Philip Sousa.  Gershwin’s new Rhapsody in Blue was a sensation from its first performance.

Whiteman, at age 34, had one of the most popular bands of the era, having made million-selling records for the Victor Talking Machine Co. (later called RCA Victor) in its earliest days.  The band had multiple engagements already booked in the weeks after the concert, including a repetition of the concert at Carnegie Hall.  Victor scheduled a recording of the Rhapsody for the next open opportunity, June 10, 1924.

Recordings of the time were very different from today.  Performers played into a gramophone horn, as electric microphones didn’t become common until 1926.  There was no editing or splicing; a side of a record comprised a single take, wrong notes and all.  Victor decided to fit the whole Rhapsody on the two sides of a 78rpm record, so the  fifteen-minute composition was “cut” down to  nine minutes – the first side starting with the famous clarinet whoop, and the second side starting with the piano solo before the big tune.

This June 1924 recording is one of the best loved in history (and in the Hall of Fame of the Library of Congress), but it’s sonically pretty rough.  Imagine a much better experience: being able to sit in the recording studio that June day and hear them play firsthand.  That’s the experience of the world-premiere collaboration between the Dallas Wind Symphony and Zenph Sound Innovations.

Zenph’s process started with Victor’s 1924 acoustical recording.  Its team, led by Philip Amalong, discovered every note and pedal as Gershwin played them – every nuance, every accent, every microsecond of timing matching Gershwin’s – through the sounds of Whiteman’s band and murk of the recording.  Each note and pedal movement was exactingly coded as precise computer data.  What you hear is this encoded data description of Gershwin’s playing – called a Zenph “re-performance” – played again, note-for-note and pedal-by-pedal via Yamaha’s best acoustic concert grand piano, outfitted with its highest-resolution playback system, the Disklavier PRO.

But, an unchanging re-performance is challenging for an orchestra to accompany – especially where they have to guess how to enter after a long stretch of solo piano work.  So, there’s a second piece of Zenph software here, a new version of the commercial “HCX” product running on a Mac, in front of the conductor.  Imagine electronic sheet music that follows you as you play, speeding up, slowing down, turning the pages – rather than you following the sheet music as has been done for centuries.  Here, HCX software is following Gershwin’s re-performance live, showing the conductor just how he’s playing – every microscopic change of tempo and dynamics – beat-by-beat, measure-by-measure – so the pianist and orchestra can stay in perfect sync.

RCA Victor and Columbia long ago became part of Sony Masterworks, and Sony’s new recordings of Zenph re-performances of artists like Rachmaninoff, Glenn Gould, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson have been acclaimed as among the finest in history.  You can buy them here, as well as Zenph’s world-class HCX software that follows you as you play.  It offers pianists of all skill ranges the ability to easily play at home with a full orchestra accompaniment.

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