Monthly Archives: June 2010

Ferde Grofé

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now eight years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Ferde Grofé (1892-1972). Café Society (1938). Philadelphia Sinfonia, Gary White. Live. 27:26

Ferde Grofé. Mississippi Suite (1926). Boston Pops Orchestra, Keith Lockhart. RCA 68786. Tr 3-6. 13:38

It’s a work by one of the significant names in American music, but it hasn’t been heard for 70 years, until now. We know Ferde Grofé as the composer of the well known Grand Canyon Suite and as the original orchestrator of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for Paul Whiteman’s band, but Café Society is a ballet from the height of his career that fell into oblivion. Gary White, conductor of the Philadelphia Sinfonia, the youth orchestra that recently played this at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, will share with us the full story behind this fanciful evocation of Prohibition-era nightlife.

Commissioned by Catherine Littlefield for her ballet company, Café Society depicts the swanky nightclubs of the time. Certain aspects of American culture we now take for granted actually first sprang forth in the 1930s: rich folks mingling with entertainers, gawkers slipping tenners to doormen to rub shoulders with the celebrities, paparazzi snapping in from the edges, and gossip columnists enticing the rest of us to read all about it in the morning paper.

Grofé satirizes it all in Café Society. He was in the vanguard of a controversial movement—the mixing of jazz and classical music—and his longevity doing it (first with Whiteman, then on his own) attests to his success. He and Littlefield both worked in musical theater and knew exactly what they wanted from this piece: a fun entertainment. It includes a cab whistle, a boxing match (with count out), a romance, and a periodically-almost-falling-over drunk. Grofé conducted the 1938 premiere in Chicago, but a 1942 concert performance by the Pennsylvania W.P.A. Symphony Orchestra in Philadelphia (one of the 33 federal or “civic” orchestras around the country) yielded the materials housed in the Fleisher Collection.

The composer’s son, Ferde Grofé Jr., thrilled to have this music performed again, granted Gary White complete access to the original sketches at the Library of Congress. The conductor painstakingly compared those to the Fleisher materials and a piano reduction in the possession of dance historian Sharon Skeel. He cleared up a number of confusing passages and errors, Fleisher reprinted a new set, and the May 2010 performance was a rousing success. In the audience were a dancer from the very same Littlefield Company and a niece of Catherine Littlefield.

The Mississippi Suite, Grofé’s first major orchestral work, shows the composer’s fondness for what he called “the American musical spirit,” something he returned to again and again. The four movements—Father of Waters, Huckleberry Finn, Old Creole Days, Mardi Gras—are a travelogue, very like what he accomplished in suites for the Hudson River, Niagara, Hollywood, the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and, of course, the Grand Canyon. About his most famous work he wrote, “Always we must realize that there is much more to hear. Our land is rich in music, and if you listen you can hear it right now. This is our music you hear, surging forth, singing up to every one of us.” That is the significance of Ferde Grofé.

Ferde Grofé’s Café Society

What a fun piece this was; glad the Fleisher Collection had a part in it. Janet Anderson wrote it up in the Broad Street Review here; below, my letter filling in a few details about this fascinating slice of history:

Re ”Back to the ‘30s, for one afternoon” by Janet Anderson—
Thanks to Janet Anderson and BSR for throwing a spotlight on the historic occasion of the performance of the Ferde Grofé 1936 ballet music Café Society at the Kimmel. I’d like to explain The Fleisher Collection’s role in this.

Philadelphia Sinfonia conductor Gary White already had the piano reduction from dance historian Sharon Skeel. When they looked to see if performance materials existed, they found them in only one place in the world: at the Free Library’s Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music.

The full score and all the parts— everything needed for an orchestral performance— were sitting on our shelves at 19th and Vine. That we have this at all is an amazing story of the foresight of Edwin Fleisher, the Free Library, and the city and federal governments, all working together to create a WPA Music Project in the years 1935-43.

Hundreds upon hundreds of American and Latin American symphonic works were collected and copied out by hand. Many were performed by established orchestras and by the 33 federal or “civic” orchestras that sprang up around the country. Philadelphia’s— the Pennsylvania W.P.A. Symphony Orchestra— played Café Society in a large orchestral concert version in 1942 at Penn’s Irvine Auditorium. That’s the version we have.

The music in ours, however, strayed from the piano reduction, a common occurrence with music involving stage action, especially when concert versions are made. Fortunately, the composer’s son, thrilled to have this music performed again, granted the conductor complete access to the original sketches at the Library of Congress. Gary White cleared up a lot of the confusing passages and fixed errors. Our old materials were falling apart, so we reprinted a completely new, clean set.

The performance by the youth of the Philadelphia Sinfonia was a rousing success, and we’ll broadcast it on a WRTI “Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection” program in the coming months.

We’ve seen similar stories many times over the years. I’m happy to be in the company of so many dedicated people, past and present. Gary, Sharon, and the Sinfonia deserve all praise for putting this together.

Paul Kletzki, Johannes Brahms

On the first Saturday of the month Jack Moore and I host Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection on WRTI 90.1 FM in Philadelphia and on the all-classical webstream at wrti.org. We also broadcast encore presentations of the entire Discoveries series (now eight years and counting!) every Wednesday at 7:00 pm on WRTI HD-2. For a look at all the shows, click here.

Saturday, June 5th, 2010, 5:00-6:00 p.m.

Paul Kletzki (1900-1973). Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 22 (1930), orch. John Norine. Joseph Banowetz, piano, Russian Philarmonic Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling. Naxos 8.572190, Tr 1-3

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Symphony No. 1, Op. 68, Adagio sostenuto (2nd movement) (1862-76). Berlin Philharmonic, Wilhelm Furtwängler. Deutsche Grammophon 415-662-2, Tr 2

This month we take a look at the music of Paul Kletzki. Not his conducting, for which he is known by cognoscenti the world over, but his composing.

The powerful pianist Joseph Banowetz spearheaded the world-premiere recording of Paul Kletzki’s Piano Concerto. It’s a remarkable look into the unknown land of his lost career of composition. Since the full score was destroyed, Banowetz had it re-orchestrated by John Norine from the piano solo and sketches. The concerto can be lavishly chromatic; while it is in the big Romantic piano tradition, it tantalizingly skirts the edges of functional tonality. An air of rumination—not unlike that of the Brahms—draws us closer to this man who composed for only 20 years, but who left behind a lifetime of music. Enjoy this unknown world.

His life was filled with astonishing highs and lows. Born in Poland in 1900, he was a child prodigy on the violin. At 15, he became the youngest member of the Lodz Symphony Orchestra, but his career was interrupted by the Polish–Soviet War of 1919-21. A Russian bullet grazed the head of soldier Kletzki, coming within an inch of killing him. After the war he went to Berlin for music studies. His conducting and composing attracted the attention of Toscanini and, especially, Wilhelm Furtwängler, the newly appointed Music Director of the Berlin Philharmonic. Kletzki guest-conducted the Philharmonic at 25, and a fast rise for the young man seemed assured. But other events in Germany were about to boil over.

Furtwängler hired him as his Assistant Conductor, but what was to be his 1933 debut concert took place without him on the podium. The Nazi Party had just taken power, and they would not allow this Jewish musician to enjoy such an exalted position. He fled the country, leaving behind much of his music, saying later that all of the plates for his published music were melted down. Escaping to Italy, Kletzki had to leave because of the Fascist anti-Semites there, and the story repeated itself with the Communists when he went to the Soviet Union. He finally ended up in Switzerland: safe, but with no prospects for work.

During all this time he produced fascinating music, but at 42, he gave up composing for good. All of the unceasing oppression had killed that particular creative spirit in him. But Kletzki found conducting to be the outlet he needed. He led many orchestras, including the Kharkov and Israel Philharmonics, the Dallas Symphony, and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. He was a sought-after conductor, and many saw in him the qualities first discovered by Furtwängler. The older conductor’s lyrical and bittersweet sensibilities speak to us in his own reading of the Brahms.

Jordi Savall

My latest CD mini-review for the WRTI E-newsletter. You can read all my CD reviews here.

Jordi Savall
Jérusalem: City of Two Peaces, Heavenly Peace and Earthly Peace
Montserrat Figueras, Hesperion XXI, Capella Reial de Catalunya, et al.
AliaVox, Hybrid SACD

If you’re familiar with Jordi Savall or medieval music, it may not be until three-quarters of the way through the first of two Super Audio CDs that you begin to recognize the sound-world. But this is not “early music.” It’s a living history—a sermon, if you will—on that most tortured of cities, Jerusalem. Savall has given us a prayer for peace in eight languages, an entreaty from within the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions that have roiled against, and lived with, each other. The 435-page hardback book is stuffed with text, translation, and historical information.

The music laments and surprises at every turn. Reeds, horns, strings, drums, and voices of all types and tunings wind into our consciousness. Four prayers for peace in Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, and Gregorian chants universalize the plea, but this album is no melting-pot. We hear echoes of traditions; but echoes occur only when there are solid mountains to bounce off of: this isn’t fusion. I see a street scene of centuries-old houses leaning against each other, chaff-colored clapboard against aquamarine stucco, with iron railings, center-worn stoops, and weeping clotheslines at all angles. Each is unique, and each seems to hold up its neighbor. The succession of multiple-language ghazals, or poems of love through travail, build up to a finale of cumulative power. Take some time with this.