It’s November and Jon Kimura Parker’s United Airlines frequent flier miles account has hit the 100,000 milestone for the year. That represents a lot of occasions to hear Rhapsody in Blue, the airline’s theme song, as he makes sure his seatbelt is securely fastened.
The piece is ubiquitous. Except in concert halls. And rarely is it heard in its entirety.
“It brilliantly occupies the intersection of classical music — the piano concerto, in form — and of jazz and Broadway,” the pianist explains. “The most important element you hear is the old kind of sound. And yet, there you have an orchestra!”
As a teacher — he’s on the faculty of the Rice University Shepherd School of Music in Houston — he’s compelled to share some background about the work: How Gershwin evoked his days as a “song pusher” on Broadway, pounding out tunes on an upright piano on the busy sidewalks outside stores and enticing people to come in and buy the sheet music. And how Gershwin mostly wrote Rhapsody in Blue while on a train (“in the piano solo cadenza, you can hear the train slowly building up steam and speed”).
Parker lived in New York for 20 years and grew accustomed to the staccato rhythms of the city that drive the music. “It feels very familiar to me,” he says. “And that familiarity allows me to just latch onto the tunes in it, and just smile.”
This unique American classic deserves to be showcased more frequently, but its special qualities may actually work against that. “Orchestras love playing it,” Parker suggests, “but the major orchestras like the CSO have their plates full with classical fare. Rhapsody in Blue has a more pop-oriented feel, compared to the big masterworks by Rachmaninov and Beethoven, so it usually doesn’t show up on subscription series. And in pop concerts, you’ve got singers coming in and doing their arrangements. And then you have the ‘Star Wars’ theme, so it doesn’t quite fit the pops genre, either. So it gets left out.”
In Chicago, Parker is collaborating with conductor Marin Alsop. They’ve worked together elsewhere to present both versions of the work. The original edition, featuring saxophone and banjo, was written for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra; the fully orchestrated version has become more prevalent in the air and everywhere. “The colors are different, but the notes are the same,” Parker says.
Parker and Alsop are presenting the full orchestral version with the CSO as part of a lively program that also features former CSO co-composer-in-residence Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, Barber’s Second Essay for Orchestra and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7.
The CSO booking is a bit of of a break for someone who has traveled to perform in war-torn Sarajevo, prudently fitted in a flak jacket, for an AmeriCares tour and above the Arctic Circle, where he traveled from town to town with electronic keyboard and amp for a Canadian arts program.
“I have a romantic notion about bringing music to people,” he says. “That is the essence of why I always wanted to be a musician. The pianists who meant the most to me, growing up, were the ones who really communicated the joy and what music is supposed to be about, which is a reflection of the human condition and something artistic. I just can’t help but want to communicate that.”
Parker’s students at Rice know all about his dedication. Last year, during a three-week concert tour of China and Taiwan, he interposed a quick return to Houston (then back to Taipei) so he wouldn’t miss their recitals.
Now he’s flying to Chicago to dispel some expectations of what classical, orchestral music can sound like, and there is nothing quite like the sounds of Rhapsody in Blue to help him do just that.
Joe Pixler is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Jon Kimura Parker in his studio. | Photo: Tara McMullen
VIDEO: The pianist discusses Rhapsody in Blue, via YouTube: