UT Wind Ensemble

The ghost of Gershwin performs live in Austin

George Gershwin
George Gershwin

You don't have to be much of a classical music junkie to have heard George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. The iconic opening of the clarinet glissando that jumps into the jazzy theme has been featured in a range of unsuspecting places: United Airlines advertisements, a gold medal-winning Olympic figure-skating routine, a riff in an Electric Light Orchestra song, and in a Nintendo Wii game, just to name a few. But few people today can say that they've heard George Gershwin perform his masterwork live as a pianist – until now.

This Sunday, the University of Texas Wind Ensemble will be performing with Gershwin himself, via Zenph Sound Innovations' "re-performance" technology. Working from the original 78rpm recording that Gershwin made of the piece for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) on June 10, 1924, Zenph studied the 10,000 notes that Gershwin played, paying rigorous attention to accent, duration, dynamic, and pedaling. Then Zenph encoded these results so that they could be played back on a modern version of a player piano. The result: a phantom Gershwin, note by note, performing straight from 1924.

Normally in performance, there is a sense of dialogue between a soloist and the orchestra, a give and take that allows for flexible pacing. Here, however, playing with a static "performer" presents a range of new challenges for the accompanying orchestra. For example, how should the orchestra know exactly how much to slow down in a certain section or how much time to wait after a long piano passage before rejoining the "soloist"? Zenph has also engineered a solution for these problems with HCX, a commercial software that shows the conductor the nuances of the tempo in the form of scrolling electronic sheet music. Even with this assistance, though, following the nuance of Gershwin's performance requires intuition, practice, and skill – making this a real tour de force for conductor Jeff Hellmer, the Butler School of Music's director of jazz studies. Most pianists who perform the Rhapsody today play it in the style of a classical pianist, characterized by a broad romanticism. But Gershwin's unique style is fresh and raw. Moreover, his tempo is much quicker than current performances. Guest conductor Jaclyn Hartenberger explains, "Gershwin played it quickly to fit on the record. The record could only fit so many minutes per side."

Rhapsody in Blue premiered on Feb. 12, 1924, in a concert titled An Experiment in Modern Music. It's a title that takes on a whole new meaning in the context of the technologically adventurous feat this Sunday. The rest of the all-Gershwin program will also be a treat for audiences. (Full disclosure: As a Butler School of Music student, I'm playing in this concert.) The first half of the program features a collaboration between the UT Wind Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra for a set of songs. Then, conductor Hellmer will step down from the podium and assume the role of a soloist for the Concerto in F (1925), conducted by Hartenberger.

The UT Wind Ensemble performs Rhapsody in Blue Sunday, March 24, 4pm, in Bates Recital Hall, 2406 Robert Dedman Dr., UT campus. For more information, call 471-5401 or visit www.music.utexas.edu.

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