Doug Sonju

Classical Notes: A rhapsodic performance

Okanagan Symphony opens its 2014-15 season with Britten's Four Sea Interludes and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with pianist Ian Parker.

Peter Grimes, the opera by Benjamin Britten, is about The Borough – a fictional village similar to Britten’s home town of Aldeburgh on England’s east coast.

On Sunday, The Four Sea Interludes from the opera were performed by the Okanagan Symphony at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre as the OSO’s season opener.

While Peter Grimes laments the drowning of his apprentice, the first interlude (Dawn) depicts The Borough’s daily grind and its relationship with the ocean.

As The Storm approaches, people take shelter in the pub. On Sunday Morning, the borough is in church. And that night (Moonlight), Grimes is accused of being a murderer.

Britten described the opera as: “a subject very close to my heart – the struggle of the individual against the masses. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.”

The main attraction Sunday was pianist Ian Parker.

Here previously to perform for the North Okanagan Community Concert Association, for whom he played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, this time he played it with the orchestra.

Despite Rhapsody’s astounding success, Gershwin hadn’t composed the orchestral parts. Wanting to accomplish a full score, he embarked on his Concerto in F.

He bought books and taught himself the necessary skills, but because of obligations to three Broadway musicals, he started later than planned.

Working in a remote practice shack, he completed the orchestration in six months.

While closer to a traditional three-movement concerto than the earlier Rhapsody, many jazz motifs and rhythms were recognizable from that earlier piece. Even so, what a stunning achievement.

Rhapsody in Blue had a curious gestation.

In 1924, when band leader Paul Whiteman, planning an experimental jazz concert, asked Gershwin to contribute a concerto-like piece, he was too busy. However, his brother Ira read about the concert in The New York Tribune, which stated “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem, and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite.”

Gershwin called Whiteman, who told him that another promoter was planning a rival event, so five weeks before the concert, Gershwin agreed to do it.

His finished score was passed to Whiteman’s arranger Ferde Grofé, who orchestrated the piece, finishing with eight days to spare.  It was premiered by Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra with Gershwin on piano.

That day the Gershwin piece was second to last. And with the ventilation system broken, the audience was tiring. Until they heard the Rhapsody.

The famous opening clarinet glissando happened accidentally. During rehearsal Whiteman’s clarinettist, Ross Gorman, played the opening notes as a continuous glissando.  Gershwin immediately insisted on keeping it, with as much of a “wail” as possible.

At Sunday’s concert, this was played by principal clarinettist Doug Sonju, playing 12 notes to produce that amazing slide. Sadly this was Sonju’s last performance with Okanagan Symphony, but what a triumphant finish after decades of performing with the orchestra and soloists. In front of an ecstatic audience, along with Parker, he took his final bow.

Jim Elderton is a freelance writer and filmmaker, who writes about the Okanagan Symphony season for The Morning Star in his column, Classical Notes.


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