Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer
In a practice shack at the far end of Chautauqua’s grounds in 1925, George Gershwin sat in solitude and finished writing his Concerto in F Major for piano. The weight of the enormously popular “Rhapsody in Blue” was on his shoulders, and the concerto would be the first piece he would write for full orchestra on his own.
That it is still being performed 87 years later is a testament to the concerto’s resilient success.
“I find that this concerto is actually, in my opinion, even a greater work than his ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ even though the Rhapsody is wonderful,” said guest pianist Ian Parker. “It has such incredible melodies; there are melancholic moments, there are excited moments, there are tender moments. It’s a very full-spectrum concerto.”
Parker will perform the concerto at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater with guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, who will lead the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica” for the second half of the program. It will be Chen’s third time conducting at Chautauqua.
“After I learned that he composed at Chautauqua, it definitely gave me a different perspective on the piece,” Chen said. “Not necessarily that I hear Chautauqua in the piece — because, you know, it’s difficult to put Chautauqua into notes. … But certainly the atmosphere allowed him to concentrate on his creative energy.”
Gershwin’s residency in Chautauqua was selected precisely for its secluded nature. Supposedly, his quarters were off-limits to the public until 4 p.m. so he had his privacy to compose. Without any classroom training in composition, Gershwin taught himself by poring over books on theory and composition.
“The concerto was an attempt for him to really write a serious work, and it really is that,” Parker said. “When the piano first comes in, it comes in with a solo where the orchestra doesn’t play, which is quite uncommon. And in that very opening piano solo, he explores the most heartfelt, almost slightly sad, tender, deep melody that really is of the Brahms and Beethoven level of musical quality.”
But there is no breaking Gershwin away from his jazzy, rhythmic roots, which can be heard especially in the rambunctious orchestral opening, Parker said.
“As far as talking about how Gershwin really writes in the classical style as well as in the more modern style, you really see that mesh in this piece,” Parker said.
In a home of pianists, Parker began lessons with his father at age 3. His mother, father, cousins and grandmother have played or taught piano.
“It wasn’t like I chose it at first, but then I figured out later my own path,” Parker said. “That was a bit hard — to get a certain identity. I was always the ‘son of,’ the ‘cousin of,’ before I was my own self.”
At age 16, Parker played with an orchestra for the first time. The piece he played was “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“For me, Gershwin has always been a very special composer,” Parker said. “To think that I’m playing in a place where the piece was actually partially composed, that is really, really neat.”
Parker now solos throughout the United States and Canada with orchestras such as the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Calgary Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra. During the summer, Parker teaches and plays chamber music in his native Vancouver.
Age 16 was also a touchstone for Chen. She grew up in Taiwan, and knew she wanted to be a conductor since age 10. After watching an American youth orchestra perform on tour, Chen was given the opportunity to play violin for the conductor Benjamin Zander.
Zander invited Chen to the orchestra’s hotel, but the only quiet room available for Chen to play was a closed bar in the basement of the building.
“So I played my violin concerto on this terrible violin, no piano accompaniment, with the smell of beer in this closed bar,” Chen said. “And that’s where he offered me a scholarship to come study violin in the boarding school affiliated with the New England Conservatory.”
But she fooled everyone, Chen said. Instead of pursuing her parents’ dream for her to become a concert violinist, she chased her own dream of becoming a conductor.
Her first job was as a conductor of the Portland Youth Orchestra, an impactful experience and one she recommends to all of her colleagues.
“When young people make music, they don’t know the burden of life; they make music with their whole heart,” Chen said. “And that is something that I still treasure very much and try to remind myself as I continue to develop my career … why we become musicians in the first place.”
Chen is now music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Sinfonietta. Although she agrees the general number of female conductors is rising, she said the percentage of women gracing the top tier of music conductorship in big-budget orchestras is still quite low.
“A music director in a community is often perceived as a community leader, a cultural community leader, not just a person that waves her arms on the podium. I think (it depends) on the community whether that community is ready to embrace a woman cultural leader in that town,” Chen said. “However, I can tell you I’ve never seen so many of my colleagues getting jobs all at once at the smaller orchestra level.”
The second half of the concert is Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” which Chen called one of the masterpieces that changed music history. The way Beethoven orchestrated the piece, the grandiose opening and the length of the first movement lead some to mark it as the beginning of the Romantic period, she said.
“There’s no introduction to warm your ear,” Chen said. “You start the symphony with two whacks of chords: Yum-Bum!”
The symphony was originally dedicated to Napoleon, but Beethoven famously ripped apart the title page when Napoleon declared himself emperor of France, instead titling it “Eroica.”
“Any time I get to do the ‘Eroica’ Symphony, I try to remind myself how humbled we all are when we get to do incredible music by geniuses like Beethoven,” Chen said.