The Wichita Symphony Orchestra is ready to turn down the lights and strike up the band with original American music by two great 20th-century composers. George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein’s quintessential American music features strong rhythms and melodies with hints of jazz and folk.
“Both Gershwin and Bernstein were able to be very successful in both popular and classical genres,” said Daniel Hege, the symphony’s music director and conductor. “They were weaving together the music in such a skillful way that the works defy an easy categorization.”
The symphony will perform Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “I Got Rhythm” variations and “Porgy and Bess: Symphonic Picture.” Guest artist and internationally acclaimed pianist Andrew Russo will play “I Got Rhythm” and “Rhapsody.”
Bernstein’s “West Side Story: Symphonic Dances” also is on tap.
Because of both composers’ nod toward American jazz, Geoffrey Deibel, the orchestra’s principal saxophonist, will take part in the performance. Clarinets, oboes and drums also will be featured in these catchy tunes.
“They’re splashy; they’re rhythmic,” Hege said. “He (Gershwin) is an incredible melodist.”
Hege said Russo is an outstanding performer who uses great technique. Russo’s charismatic personality and collaborative style exhibit the perfect blend of a virtuoso performer with a cooperative nature who can expertly perform Gershwin’s classics with a full orchestra. Russo, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano from the Juilliard School, specializes in American composers.
Russo used to spend a lot of time with his grandmother at her home in upstate New York, where he is from. Little 5-year-old Andrew would hug his Ukrainian grandmother and then run to her piano, mesmerized by its keys and the music they put out. His grandmother would teach him her native folk tunes.
During this time with his grandmother, Russo said, he played simple songs. But they captured his imagination and launched him into lessons that led to a career. Along with his work at Juilliard, Russo also attended the University of Music and Theatre in Leipzig, Germany.
The award-winning pianist was trained in the classics, but he has premiered works by contemporary composers George Crumb and John Corigliano. He’s played in St. Petersburg, Paris and Tokyo, as well as throughout the U.S.
“Gershwin to me is kind of sitting on the fence between classical and jazz,” Russo said. “ “Rhapsody in Blue’ is iconoclastic. It’s one of the all-time great catchy tunes.”
When Russo plays this piece, he tries to bring the music back to its blues-and-gospel feel.
“I try to bring in a little bit of Ray Charles and Sunday at church,” Russo said. “The piece takes you through several different worlds.”
Along with the standard classical themes, “Rhapsody” displays pop-show music and finishes with what Russo calls a “typical Gershwin Hollywood ending.”
Gershwin’s scores will share the stage with the music of his fellow American composer Bernstein. Like Gershwin, he used elements of jazz, classical and Americana. Bernstein attended Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music. He conducted the New York Philharmonic and guest conducted for many of the greatest orchestras worldwide.
“Bernstein is a composer and a conductor,” Hege said. “Bernstein was able to infuse popular American elements like jazz and then all these classical elements.”
The concert will end on a different note: The symphony will perform an encore.
“This will end the concert with a bang,” Hege said. “The whole experience of the concert is over the top. There are great hits, great melodies, great composers and a salute to American music.”
Gershwin’s and Bernstein’s music combines the strictly American musical language of jazz and blues with classical elements.
“It’s going to be an incredibly exhilarating experience to hear these pieces side by side,” Hege said. “This program is such a hybrid. You’re having the lush great quality of the orchestra but also the sounds of the big band.”