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  • Mitchell Kasdan

Orchestra Performs “Rhapsody in Blue” For 100th Anniversary Special

Members of the orchestra perform in a concert last year / Via Penguin Nation

“Rhapsody in Blue,” an avant-garde mix of popular and classical music composed by George Gershwin, premiered for the first time 100 years ago. For its anniversary this year, the Library of Congress filmed a visual and audio collage of ensembles from across the country performing the piece. This collage included the School Without Walls symphonic orchestra.

Christopher Alberts, conductor of the SWW orchestra, attested to the effort that the orchestra put into their recording, saying “our students poured their passion into this performance.” He added that it was “an honor to contribute to a celebration of a piece that has resonated so profoundly with audiences over the past century.”

Mr. Alberts described “Rhapsody in Blue” as “a quintessential piece of American music,” and explained that the “Library of Congress often engages in commemorations of significant cultural and historical milestones. They serve as stewards of our nation’s artistic heritage and frequently collaborate with artists and organizations to celebrate noteworthy anniversaries.”

“Rhapsody in Blue” is so important to American music history and culture, “due to its innovative fusion of classical and jazz elements,” explained Mr. Alberts, the composition “marked a departure from traditional musical boundaries, capturing the energy and vibrancy of the Roaring Twenties.”

The premier demonstrated that the new music of the time, jazz, should be respected as a legitimate art form, since many didn’t like it due to its humble origins. Despite the thundering applause it received from the audience, reviews from critics were initially mixed at this new style of music. Many classical composers scoffed at Gershwin and didn’t recognize “Rhapsody in Blue” as serious music.

Avril Graffe (‘27), a cello player in the SWW orchestra, said, “My favorite element of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ has to be the jazzy rhythms and vibrant melodies. Playing those syncopated rhythms on the cello is so much fun, like I’m right in the middle of a bustling jazz club.” For Graffe, “Rhapsody” was a nice change of pace in terms of style, since most of the music for cello is classical. It brought a new energy to performing and the piece.

Chaeli Cantwell, a multimedia producer for the Library of Congress, said that the Library of Congress chose School Without Walls to participate because they “wanted to also include younger generations who are in pursuit of learning music, and the School Without Walls embodies musical education.”

Cantwell added that they “We also wanted to demonstrate how this classic piece can be incorporated in the role of musical education and the exploration of learning and mastering music. School Without Walls’s orchestra’s talent and dedication to learning this classical piece showcases how music can inf luence creative processes.”

“Performing for the video was an amazing experience,” Gaffe said. She and other members of the orchestra were excited about the lasting impact their performance will have. “This will be kept in the library forever. One day it will be as old as some of the books there and people will be able to see me when they show what orchestras were like in 2024,” Gaffe explained. “I felt honored to share my music in such a meaningful way”

Cantwell said that they chose “Rhapsody” for this representation because firstly, they house the “George and Ira Gershwin Collection, including George’s piano and a leather-bound copy of his original manuscript of ‘Rhapsody.’” Like Mr. Alberts said, the Library of Congress records and preserves the history of the nation with things like the collection and this commemorative video. Cantwell said that with the video, they really wanted to showcase “the far reaching influence of the song and how it has taken different styles and forms.”

One hundred years ago, many composers complained that “Rhapsody” wasn’t a true song because it lacked coherency. Leonard Bernstein wrote that it was “a string of separate paragraphs stuck together — with a thin paste of flour and water.” This string of phrases, however, makes the song very adaptable and it can sound different based on the arrangement and performance with certain parts removed or located in different places. For example, the Library of Congress video features a memorable melodic phrase that Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker hummed that is not even included in the arrangement that the SWW orchestra performed. As well in the same video, the iconic opening scale for clarinet actually performed by a banjo, demonstrating the extreme adaptability of the piece. The ingenious composing, filling the song with so many interesting musical phrases, is what makes it so memorable and a bona fide American classic.


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