How “Rhapsody in Blue” Perfectly Channels New York

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Among the songs most associated with New York City—from Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” to Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind”—perhaps none is more evocative of the metropolis, in its first few notes, than George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Cementing its iconic status: Woody Allen’s 1979 film “Manhattan,” a cinematic love letter to the city, which set its opening montage of quintessential New York scenes to Gershwin’s famed jazz concerto.

On Friday and Saturday, the New York Philharmonic will perform “Rhapsody” and the many other Gershwin songs on the soundtrack in the first-ever live accompaniment of the film. The orchestra recorded much of the original movie soundtrack in 1979, in the same room where the screening will take place.

Gershwin, born in Brooklyn, had a New York-centric career, first in the city’s nightclubs and as a Tin Pan Alley songwriter before becoming, with his brother Ira, a dominant Broadway songwriter. Of “Rhapsody,” which he debuted at age 24, he once suggested that a listener might detect in it the sounds of “a picnic party in Brooklyn,” “a Harlem cabaret,” or “a New York crowd.”

The Wall Street Journal spoke with an array creative artists involved with Gershwin’s work about how the song evokes New York for them.

Pascual Martinez-Forteza, clarinetist, New York Philharmonic

When Mr.Martínez-Forteza moved to New York City in 2001 to play clarinet with the Philharmonic, one of the pieces he performed in his first week was “Rhapsody.”

It was a big deal.

“When I was growing up in Spain, every time I heard the piece, I’d think of New York,” said Mr. Martínez-Forteza. “To play this piece that is in the DNA of the city, and [of] the orchestra, was fantastic.”

At this week’s screening, Mr. Martínez-Foreteza said he will strive for the smooth, gliding ascent of the opening notes achieved by the Philharmonic’s Stanley Drucker for the film’s soundtrack nearly 40 years ago.

Arguably the best-known clarinet passage in 20th-century classical music, the “Rhapsody” opening is a special part for any player, Mr. Martínez-Foreteza said, and all the more so for him today: “I’ve lived in the city for 16 years, so I feel like I understand it better now.”

Vince Giordano, big-band leader

“The bluesy opening always has this feeling of the starting of a day in the city,” said Mr. Giordano, who has appeared in numerous Allen films and whose 1920s and ’30s jazz big band the Nighthawks has performed on many of their soundtracks, including the recent “Café Society.”

For Mr. Giordano, Gershwin’s fusion of jazz and classical traditions captures the thriving melting pot of Jazz Age New York: “The syncopation, the blue notes, the ragtime and jazz rhythms that Gershwin wrote in 1924 was really a feeling of New York City in that amazing era. The rhythm of the city seems to be in there.”

Lang Lang, concert pianist

On Friday, Sony Classical will release a new album from virtuoso Chinese pianist Lang Lang, “New York Rhapsody,” featuring a version of “Rhapsody” performed with jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock.

“Since I was a kid, I know this piece,” said Lang Lang, whose piano teacher Gary Graffman performed on the “Manhattan” soundtrack. “When I hear ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ I see the Empire State Building somehow.”

Lang Lang hummed a few bars, as if summoning more imagery: “I see the New York skyline in midtown Manhattan, and I already see the coffee shops, Times Square.”

Christopher Wheeldon, director, choreographer of Broadway’s “An American in Paris”

Mr. Wheeldon recalls being introduced to “Rhapsody in Blue” in concert at a young age; as a musical-theater-obsessed 12-year-old, he remembers being fascinated by how it “bridged the worlds of show music and classical.”

“It also elicited all sorts of fantasies about living in a skyscraper,” he said. These days, the music suggests the “energy and forward motion” of New Yorkers themselves.

Earlier this year, Mr. Wheeldon created a new work for the New York City Ballet set to “Rhapsody,” finding it ideally suited to choreographed movement. “At its heart is that romantic theme that we all know and love,” he said, referring to the lush, slower Andantino moderato section. “It was pure joy having that played for us each day and discovering how to convey that romance using a classical ballet vocabulary.”

Eric Goldberg, Disney animator

In the “Rhapsody” sequence of “Fantasia 2000,” the sequel to the classic Disney animated feature, the marriage of music and image is even more overtly illustrative than in “Manhattan.” The sequence is drawn in a sinuous and curvilinear style reminiscent of the caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

“It’s a free, jazzy style,” said Mr. Goldberg, who had used a similar style animating the Genie in “Aladdin” years earlier, “so why not animate jazz with it?”

Despite initial concern from Disney about Gershwin’s music being too modern for “Fantasia,” Mr. Goldberg said the varied pacing, style and orchestration of “Rhapsody” lent themselves brilliantly to animation.

“Frankly, the music told me what I should be doing! I constantly saw certain passages visually: this sounds like a pile driver, this sounds like a subway train, that sounds like cars screeching to a halt.”

Elsewhere, the Andantino passage inspired a scene in which New Yorkers “ice skate beautifully at Rockefeller Center, imagining their dreams realized.”
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
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