BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Numerous pianists have been the soloist for Rhapsody in Blue with the Florida Orchestra — Michael Kim, Jeffrey Siegel and Norman Krieger in the past 15 years or so. Now the orchestra will get a chance this weekend to play the iconic work with the man who composed it and was the soloist in the 1924 premiere, George Gershwin.
Well, if not Gershwin himself — he died in 1937 — then a close approximation of his performance, thanks to technology.
"This is an opportunity for George Gershwin to make a rare posthumous appearance,'' says George Litterst, the music technologist behind the production.
Instead of playing with a real live pianist this weekend, music director Stefan Sanderling and the orchestra will be joined onstage by a Yamaha Disklavier grand piano, which is essentially a high-tech player piano. The solo piano part will be played by a MIDI file produced from a piano roll made by Gershwin in 1925.
"It's a very expressive performance,'' says Litterst, who used sophisticated musical software to transfer Rhapsody in Blue from piano roll to Disklavier for the first time for the Boston Pops in 1998, the centennial of Gershwin's birth. "You'll hear loud and soft, properly pedaled, just as Gershwin played it.''
When Gershwin was growing up, the parlor of many a household had a player piano and a box of paper piano rolls punched full of holes. He was inspired to become a musician after hearing a piano roll of Anton Rubinstein playing one of his compositions. As a Tin Pan Alley pianist, Gershwin made more than 100 piano rolls of popular songs, including some from the musicals he created with his brother, Ira.
"The heyday of the player piano was around 1923,'' says Litterst, 56, a pianist, educator and music technology consultant in Massachusetts. "At that time, over half of the pianos sold in the United States had some kind of player system.''
The piano roll of Rhapsody in Blue was an arrangement of the solo and the jazz-band instrumentation as performed by Gershwin and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in the premiere. In Gershwin's hands, the solo sounds quite different from recordings by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn, Earl Wild and others.
"It is a lot faster, and in the passages where Gershwin is playing by himself, you will hear a very distinctive treatment of the rhythms quite unlike what you've heard on a recording before,'' Litterst says.
Rhapsody in Blue and other Gershwin pieces have been slowed down by generations of classical pianists. "The influence of the classical pianist has been to overromanticize a lot of Gershwin,'' Litterst says. "I can remember listening for the first time to Gershwin's own recorded performance of his Three Preludes, and being very startled by how he interpreted the first one, which so many pianists will play in this hazy, romantic way. His is a very fast-moving, straight-ahead performance.''
Litterst planned to attend orchestra rehearsals this week to help set up the Disklavier and familiarize Sanderling with it. The conductor will wear headphones to listen to the original piano roll — both solo and orchestration — so as to be able to coordinate some of the tricky tempo changes in Gershwin's performance with the live orchestra. The work opens with the famous clarinet glissando before the piano makes its entrance.
"The conductor will freely conduct the first 18 measures, and as he gives the upbeat to measure 19, he will push the play button on this box,'' Litterst says. "From that point onwards, a MIDI file of the piano will play continuously, with the conductor listening to the original piano roll performance on his headphones. It is a different kind of experience for a symphony orchestra conductor.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.