Jeffrey Biegel Invites Listeners To Experience Gershwin
Jeffrey Biegel is a versatile pianist who has worked with some of the world’s greatest symphonies and some of its greatest composers as well. He also loves the music of George Gershwin, who, along with his brother Ira Gershwin, wrote some of the most enduring pieces in American music.
Biegel is especially fond of “Rhapsody In Blue,” a piece that serves as the climax of the Gershwin Experience shows Biegel will perform with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra this weekend. “Rhapsody” dates to 1924 when it was first orchestrated by Ferdie Grofé.
What makes the piece great? Biegel says for one thing, Gershwin incorporates a number of musical idioms.
“When I play ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ I feel like I’m a tour guide,” he says, “giving a tour through the cultural diversity of New York—musically. Here we are in Harlem. Or here we are in the Jewish section and look, they’re dancing the freilach over there. And you can imagine a klezmer band playing that section of ‘Rhapsody In Blue.’
“And we get to the main theme, and you’re in Tin Pan Alley, and someone is rehearsing a new song that George Gershwin just wrote. That main theme of ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ that everybody knows [sings it], is not what Gershwin originally wrote in 1924 for that section of the piece.
“When he met with Ferdie Grofé, to just finalize the arrangement for the players, for the orchestra players…Gershwin gave enough directives in there, who should play what, but Grofé filled out the rest. Gershwin got to that section but played a different part. Grofé said, ‘Ah, that doesn’t really do it for me. I’m not really buying that. What else do you have for that section? What else you got?’ Gershwin said, ‘I don’t really, this is what I wrote for the piece.’”
Still, Grofé persisted.
“He tells George, ‘What else do you have?’ And he just pulls a rabbit out of a hat. He starts playing this part,” Biegel says. “He’s playing it and playing it, and Grofé says, ‘You know, I kind of like that better. Sleep on it.’ The next morning, Grofé calls Gershwin and says, ‘It’s all I’ve heard in my head all night. You have to use that.’ And that’s how that main theme became the signature of ‘Rhapsody In Blue.’”
There is one more element of the story that enriches the history of ‘Rhapsody.’ Biegel explains that Gershwin didn’t think up that theme on the spot: “But apparently George Gershwin told Ferdie Grofé, ‘Well, I wrote that five years ago.’ So it’s 1919 that he wrote that song. And he put it in ‘Rhapsody In Blue.’"
Biegel adds that no matter how many times he revisits the music of Gershwin, it’s always a new experience.
“I love it because it always feels like the first time I’m playing it,” he says. “I never feel like, ‘Oh, it’s “Rhapsody In Blue” again.’ I always wonder how someone who does a Broadway show has to walk out on stage each time as though it were the first. That’s how I feel whenever I play ‘Rhapsody In Blue.’
"I feel like that with almost everything but for some reason, with that piece, it always feels so fresh. It always feels like the first time, and it’s just because of the nature of the piece. I try to bring out what I think George Gershwin and I think that that’s always a challenge.”
Jeffrey Biegel performs with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra as part of the Gershwin Experience this Friday evening at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 3.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.
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