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Ensemble takes 'Rhapsody in Blue' back to its origins

"Gritty, biting and raspy" are not words normally used to describe George Gershwin's beloved classic, "Rhapsody in Blue."

But these are the words that Frederick Harris, director of the MIT Wind Ensemble, uses in comparing the original 1924 version of the piece--to be performed by the group Saturday night (May 10)--to the lush, romantic orchestra version that audiences have come to know and love.

Scored for a jazz band with a small string section, the original version "is much more a child of the '20s jazz age," reflecting the musical environment in which Gershwin wrote it, Harris said.

Originally called "American Rhapsody" and officially the "Rhapsody in Blue for Jazz Band and Piano," the piece was an immediate hit at New York City's Aeolian Hall on Feb. 12, 1924 when it premiered with Gershwin himself at the piano. In 1942, the piece was rescored for full symphony orchestra. The original version, which is four minutes longer than the orchestra version, isn't performed very often, said Harris, both because the parts are hard to get and because it calls for an unusual combination of instruments that aren't always readily available, including a guitar, celeste, saxophone section and banjo.

Why does Harris think the piece has remained so popular? "It speaks to a transcendental American musical experience at a period in our country's history--the 1920s--when so many great things happened culturally," he said. "It also has wonderful, memorable melodies, and even though the form is extended, it's easy to grasp."

The piano soloist for "Rhapsody in Blue" will be Jonathan Lee, a graduate student in electrical engineering.

"Insomniacs" to premiere

Saturday's wind ensemble performance will also feature the world premiere of Assistant Professor of Music Brian Robison's "The Congress of the Insomniacs," which he describes as "jazz, funk and minimalist motives combined in a quasi-tonal hybrid." The title comes from a poem by Charles Simic that Robison discovered while he was writing the piece; the poem's combination of "dreamlike imagery and dry wit" seemed to fit the tone of the music he had begun to compose.

Written expressly for the MIT Wind Ensemble, the piece takes the form of a Baroque concerto grosso, alternating the large wind ensemble with a smaller group of eight soloists. "It murmurs, screams, swings, stamps, sings, and is pensive and overt at the same time," said Harris. "It's quite a ride."

The 8 p.m. concert in Kresge Auditorium will also include "Vientos y Tangos" (2002) by Michael Gandofli and "Rondo" by Jason Pelc, a freshman in physics. Tickets are $3. For more information, call 253-2826.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 2003.

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