Blue Rhapsody on a Gray Day

The Mountain Music Club continues, somehow.

We’ve met many dead-of-winter weekends to listen, talk about and geek out on music. For 30-plus years, we convened mainly in the far-Adirondacks home of host Stephen Horne, toting totes full of CDs and vinyl, of food and drink including Perreca’s favorites, artisan beers, and old whiskey. And we always, always, stopped at the Noonmark Diner to grab pies on the way northwest on Rt. 73. Same thing, on the way home.

The Rice Mountain Lodge, home of Stephen Horne and Kevan Moss; site of many Mountain Music Club meet-ups.

We’ve also savored the scene in Northampton where Dennis Bidwell lives and hosts us, with tasty brew-pub crawls, ethnic eats, live shows at the Academy of Music, Iron Horse or Calvin Theater and eye-popping pilgrimages to the Smith College art gallery.

But, no; not since the pandemic struck.

Our last face-to-face, or stereo-to-face, gathering was in January 2020.

As ever, we signed off with our customary closer: the late, great Allen Toussaint singing Paul Simon’s “American Tune” – a soulful send-off supreme.

So, what now?

We ZOOM some, and we phone some; but mostly we email and share online links to music and videos we think the rest of the crew will like.

Today’s email from Dennis hit that nail on the head. Here are the guy’s own words:

You know I’m an enthusiast for the BBC podcast Soul Music.  I recently listened to the podcast on Rhapsody in Blue and the genius of George Gershwin and how Rhapsody came together and how various musicians react to it.

So yesterday I found a Youtube of remarkable pianist Khatia Buniatishvili performing Rhapsody recently with the Lyon Symphony. Over the years I’ve seen/heard many performances of Rhapsody, and once tried to play* portions of it, but I’ve never experienced so enthralling a performance of Rhapsody as this one.’m done in by the opening clarinet glissando, and she takes it from there.

Wow! She does, indeed.

Before this, my favorite “Rhapsody in Blue” recording was by Gershwin himself. My 1987 vinyl combines the 1925 player piano roll Gershwin played, with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Old technology note: A player piano roll is a long paper sheet with holes punched in it, corresponding to notes a pianist plays. The player piano reads the notes from the paper and plays them.)

For passion and precision, Buniatishvili’s performance stands tall beside the composer’s own.

Born in Batumi in what was then the Soviet Socialistic Republic of Georgia, Buniatishvili proves that great music stays great, regardless of time; and that music moves from place to place and player to player, regardless of distance. 

Buniatishvili engages the piano with her entire body, heart and soul. It’s not theatrical, it’s essential; her essence expressing Gershwin’s. 

Credits pop up during the performance, explaining that behind her piano is the Orchestre National de Lyon in France. Leonard Slatkin conducts them, as the camera finds soloists in their showcase moments of Gershwin’s kaleidoscopic score.

The camera also finds Buniatishvili’s face, smiling as others carry the melody, then goes intent with concentration, sometimes holding the smile.

Also on the program, the video text announces: Aaron Copeland’s rambunctious “Billy the Kid,” and Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” a truly hallucinatory orchestral work and one of my favorites. Four performances of that are in my record shelves, and six of Symphony No. 5 of Dmitry Shostakovich, but I digress.

Some years ago, I read of a mixed media performance of the Berlioz, filmed by Basil Twist. What a great name for any creative soul, particularly this bravely eccentric one. Twist stirs scarves and tinsel through colored lights in an aquarium that his camera scans, as a pianist distills Berlioz’s score into a Gershwin-ish at times jazzy vigor.

The New Yorker saluted this Berlioz-Twist creation:

Re-reading it, I think, again, that I should pay the $20 to see it.

Meanwhile, the Khatia Buniatishvili performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” resonates through me. 

Check out her big flourish as she completes a phrase and soars her hands high over the keyboard in jubilation. It happens at 15:40** and it’s clear, gloriously clear, that she’s expressing a shared triumph, both Gershwin’s and her own.

*In a Nashville stop-over visit to my brother Jim’s place en route to my first ever Jazz Fest in New Orleans, Jim arranged a visit to RCA Studio B where great giants made rocking records. The studio manager reverently retrieved a silvery-RCA ribbon mic from a cabinet, announcing this magical machine had carried the voice of Elvis to tape. Dennis sat down at the Steinway grand piano where Floyd Cramer recorded “Last Date” – maybe the most poignant honky-tonk love song ever made.

** Any area rock and roll fan of sufficient (my) age recognizes these digits as the AM frequency of WPTR, one of two top 1960s radio stations that brought us the best tunes of the time – also, of course, the worst and most mediocre, come to that. When I spot those numbers, I automatically recall the station’s jaunty jingle: “Fifteen-forty; W-P-T-R!”