Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" Variations for Piano and Orchestra
performed on August 13, 2018 at Staunton Music Festival
Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, Virginia
Lori Piitz, piano solo
SMF Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James Wilson
flute: Anita Rieder, oboe: Roger Roe, clarinets: Ed Matthew, Igor Begelman, bassoons: Larisa Gelman, Stephanie Corwin,
horns: Ian Zook, Catherine Creasy, trumpets: Bruno Lourensetto, Ross Ahlhorn, percussion: Brian David Smith, I-Jen Fang,
violins: Kobi Malkin, Jacob Ashworth, Aisslinn Nosky, Diane Pascal, Jeannette Jang, Valerie Gordon,
violas: Jason Fisher, Vladimir Mendelssohn, cellos: Carl Donakowski, Michael Unterman, double bass: Erik Higgins
Video by Stewart Searle
Lori Piitz is Professor of Piano at James Madison University. She has participated in the Bach Festival at EMU, the Contemporary Music Festival at JMU and the Richmond Chamber Music Festival and has been heard in recital at the Kennedy Center. Ms. Piitz has been a guest at the Festival of the Sound in Canada, the Schleswig-Holstein and Villa Musica Festivals in Germany, and at the Mozart Bicentennial Series at Lincoln Center. Ms. Piitz holds performance degrees from Indiana University and the University of Ottawa where she was awarded the prestigious Isobel Firestone Performance Scholarship, and has attended the Banff School of Fine Arts. She has studied with Menahem Pressler, Leonard Hokanson, Jean-Paul Sevilla and Helgi Fatovic.
About the Music
In a genre dominated by Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin (1898-1937) quietly created three signature works for piano and orchestra: Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto in F, and Variations on “I Got Rhythm.” Regarding the Variations, its original music dates from just before 1930. “I Got Rhythm,” with lyrics by George’s brother Ira, started out as a slow song in the Gershwins’ 1928 musical Treasure Girl before making a splash in a revised, upbeat version for Girl Crazy (1930). Along with “Embraceable You” from the same musical, “I Got Rhythm” became one of the brothers’ signature songs. Twenty years later a tap-dancing Gene Kelly gave the song global appeal in the film An American in Paris. Notable features of the melody include a balance of rising and falling pentatonic (five-tone) scales, though only four of the five notes are used. The song is also notable for its consistently syncopated rhythm. One of the “rubs” here is that one really does have to have rhythm in order to effectively render the offbeat accents of the main theme, as well as its faster tagline, “Who could ask for anything more.”
In the version for piano and orchestra, completed in January 1934 for his own pending concert tour, Gershwin adds an orchestral introduction. Beginning with chromatic solo clarinet (a feature shared with his Rhapsody in Blue), we proceed to brass and strings spiced up with hints of the “Who could ask…” motive. At its first entrance, the piano solo presents the theme without adornment or change. In the second variation, Gershwin shifts the theme to the orchestra while the piano freely percusses a chromatic counterpoint. The third variation slows the rhythm to a crawl, making it sound more like a ballad than a toe-tapping showpiece. Following a short cadenza, Gershwin inserts what he calls a “Chinese variation” in which colorful use of xylophone and pentatonic pitch sets are called upon to evoke an oriental sound. Later, the slap bass and jazzed-up rhythms usher in a new style redolent of the nightclub scene, a world Gershwin knew well. A more modernist, athletic variation allowing for an optional cadenza carries the work toward its conclusion. The original song continues to enjoy success, but these delightful piano variations allow it to reach even greater audiences as a sparkling, mini concerto.
© Jason Stell, 2018
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PERSPECTIVE: Inside Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" Variations
Conductor James Wilson and piano soloist Lori Piitz reflect back on their collaborative performance of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" Variations, recorded at Staunton Music Festival in August 2018.
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