Marin Alsop's Shared Musical Roots The Baltimore Symphony conductor chooses a season of music built on the belief that understanding where we come from, and celebrating diversity, can create a sense of continuity, history and belonging — not to mention some great concerts.

Hear Marin Alsop and Scott Simon Discuss Gershwin On 'Weekend Edition Saturday'

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Where do great ideas come from? Great art and artists can be famously inspired by their surroundings. And theyre often ingenious and notorious borrowers. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is embracing that idea this season with a series of performances that focus on shared musical roots bound in classical music. Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony, joins us. Thanks so much for being back with us, Marin.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Its great to be here, Scott.

(Soundbite of music, Rhapsody in Blue)

SIMON: This is one of the best known pieces of American music were hearing right now, George Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue.

Ms. ALSOP: That very famous glissando that we just heard, you know, the sort of scoop in the clarinet line at the beginning. He actually stole that. He heard the principal clarinet player in the Paul Whiteman Band warming up and he was fooling around and, you know, he just got on a role and did this huge glissando and he said, oh, thats fantastic, Im going to use that. And thats where that came from.

(Soundbite of music, Rhapsody in Blue)

SIMON: So tell us about the series, what you intend to do now.

Ms. ALSOP: The overview of our series is all about our shared cultural roots, and I really tried to focus on the various immigrant populations that settled in our region. And, of course, looking back there was a huge Russian migration to the area, especially in the first wave of immigration to the Baltimore region and the surrounding areas.

This led me to programming quite a bit of Russian music and of course then led me to the connections of the influence on the Russian population. Of course, George Gershwin is the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants and Russian music and American music share a lot of similarities. They were both, certainly in terms of symphonic music, both started at about the same time.

Theres a passion, theres an immediacy to the musics that we share. Its been a great season to explore these ideas and - so weve put a special focus on the music of George Gershwin.

SIMON: Lets listen to a little bit of another one of his compositions, Concerto in F.

(Soundbite of music, Concerto in F)

SIMON: Some influence of jazz too?

Ms. ALSOP: Oh, without a doubt. The interesting thing about this arrangement that youre listening to is that this is in the Paul Whiteman version. So this orchestration was done by Ferde Grofe, who was a - sort of the staff house arranger for Paul Whitemans band. So it gives, I think, a little more punch, a little more jazz influence. And were just in the process right now of recording these arrangements with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist. And, you know, they have banjo and, you know, rhythm section. And so they really bump up the jazzy element, I think.

And, of course, with Gershwin we always hear this influence of jazz and whats about to come. I mean, we have to remember that this is the early, you know, were talking about the 20s, early 30s - I mean, jazz is just coming into its own. So in many ways Gershwin is really foreshadowing whats coming.

He was an amazing, brilliant composer and real visionary. If he had lived past his 30s, I mean, no telling what he could have done. I mean, probably people know that he died of - very suddenly of a brain tumor. And you know, he hadnt even reached 40 years old. And if hed gone on, you know, just imagine what kind of symphonic poems and symphonies - I mean in my opinion - he would have written.

(Soundbite of song, Summertime)

SIMON: The first introduction to serious music as Americans is Porgy and Bess. And if we could hear just one of the great American songs of all time, written by George Gershwin and his brother.

(Soundbite of song, Summertime)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddys rich and your ma is good looking. So hush little baby

SIMON: A critic famously observed that Porgy and Bess was a great folk opera, a great Jewish folk opera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: Looking back, the kind of vision and also chutzpah you had to have to write this kind of opera at the time George Gershwin did, an opera that was really a celebration of indigenous American music - I mean, he fell in love with the African-American voices and the spirituals and everything that had been brought to America from Africa. And he writes an opera where he says, I never want this opera performed except with an all African-American cast. I mean, and for the time

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. ALSOP: what a statement to make. You know, as we look back it really is, its so telling because this opera was not premiered at the Met until 1983 for this exact reason. And

SIMON: I never knew that until now.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, its shocking.

SIMON: That is shocking.

Ms. ALSOP: And

SIMON: By 1983 it had played around the world

Ms. ALSOP: Absolutely

SIMON: as an exemplar of an American genius.

Ms. ALSOP: But you know, there was still many, many houses that had issues with this. But George Gershwin, you know, he was all about the quality of the music and the quality of the voice and the authenticity of the text and the story.

(Soundbite of song, Summertime)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) One of these mornings, youre going to rise up singing. Then youll spread your wings and youll take to the sky

SIMON: Let me ask you about a piece that I must say is new to me, Blue Monday. He apparently wrote this before Porgy and Bess.

Ms. ALSOP: So Blue Monday, was really just part of a vaudeville show in the early 20s. I think it was 1922 when he wrote it. He somehow got hooked into writing a little piece for this revue show. And this is where he met Paul Whiteman, because Paul Whitmans band was the pit orchestra. So this is a 20 minute chamber opera. Its written 11 years before Porgy and Bess and the music is fantastic. You can hear the ideas

SIMON: Which is like 24 or 25?

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah. Oh, he was just a kid. The opera, Blue Monday, was cut out of the revue show because people thought it was too depressing. You know, because hes trying to capture everything in opera, you know, the jealousy and the murder and the death and the mistaken identities, all in 20 minutes. So its I mean the book is really very silly but the music is fantastic. And you can hear the ideas already with this young George Gershwin starting to percolate. Were actually performing this piece on our season this year.

(Soundbite of song, Blue Monday)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Ms. ALSOP: It was performed a couple of times when they were warming up to bring it to Broadway and then it was cut when it was just getting started my own orchestra, Concordia. I couldnt resist digging it up and putting it back together. And so that recording you are hearing is a recording I made about 15 years ago.

SIMON: Now, of course, its inconceivable to think of anything that Gershwin wrote being cut from anybodys presentation.

Ms. ALSOP: It is, but you know, somehow he Im sure it bothered him, but theres no recollection really of him being upset about it. He made the contact, and this is how he met Paul Whiteman, who then said, oh, maybe Ill have you do a piece for this concert Im doing, you know, sort of an American jazz concert. And thats how Rhapsody in Blue came about. If that collaboration hadnt happen, who knows whether Rhapsody in Blue would have ever been written.

SIMON: Maestro Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. You can hear more music from Marin Alsop and read her latest essay on our Web site,

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