The Albany Symphony Orchestra’s Saturday concert is a prelude of sorts. Barely a week later, the orchestra will perform the same program at the third annual Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall. The ASO will be the only orchestra to perform for the second time at the festival.
“It feels great,” said music director David Alan Miller. “It’s a great tribute to the excellence of the orchestra and its creative spirit.”
Albany Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. April 27
WHERE: Palace Theatre
HOW MUCH: $19 - $60
MORE INFO: 694-3300, 465-4755, www.albanysymphony.com
When the orchestra was first asked to play in 2011, Miller said he felt it was because of its reputation for being a strong champion of American music and especially of living composers, and this despite having the smallest budget of any of the other six orchestras who were participating. (In 2011, the orchestras were the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the orchestras of Toledo, Montreal, Dallas and Oregon.) Miller and the orchestra have also received several ASCAP awards for “Adventurous Programming.”
When they were asked to return — the Oregon Symphony Orchestra was also asked but couldn’t come because of conflicts — Miller submitted two programs and the festival committee chose the one that was more substantial and that had real New York connections, he said. (The other orchestras for the third festival are those from Baltimore, Buffalo, Detroit and the National.)
The program will be Morton Gould’s Symphony No. 3; John Harbison’s Suite from his opera “The Great Gatsby”; and George Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody, which is also known as “Rhapsody in Rivets” or “New York Rhapsody.” Pianist Kevin Cole, an orchestra favorite and a known Gershwin interpreter, will be the soloist.
“The Gould is a very ambitious, 37-minute, beautiful, daring work and very challenging to play,” Miller said. “We recorded it seven or eight years ago and it’s the only recording of it made.”
To his knowledge, the symphony has been performed only by the Dallas Symphony and the New York Philharmonic in the 70 years since it was written.
“I’m flummoxed why,” Miller said. “It’s a great sadness of the American repertoire. A piece would be played so many times and then forgotten. I love the piece. It’s a Holy Grail piece: All have heard it but never recorded it.”
Three years ago, the ASO recorded the Harbison Suite, which has still to be released. The opera, which premiered in 1999 at the Metropolitan Opera, was Harbison’s magnum opus, Miller said.
“He created a suite from the popular parts of the opera that include fox trots, faux 1920s songs, and tangos. This is an homage,” Miller said.
Cole was always going to be part of the show, but Miller didn’t want to do Gershwin’s usual pieces of “Rhapsody in Blue” or Concerto in F.
“I wanted a piece that was not often heard in New York City and that would make a statement,” Miller said.
Cole suggested the Second Rhapsody.
“It’s a fantastic piece,” Miller said. “Gershwin was an older, more mature composer. And Kevin is the consummate performer.”
For Cole, Gershwin has always been the guy who inspired him, even when he was 7 years old.
“I’d already been playing piano for three years when I watched that ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ 1945 movie,” he said. “I knew about George and the Rhapsody, and the music had a huge impact.”
Cole wanted to learn more, so he went to the library and found a book, “The Gershwin Years” (1958) by Ed Jablonski. He was surprised to discover that Jablonski came from his home town of Bay City, Michigan. Eight years later, when Cole was auditioning in New York City for Tanglewood, he took a chance and telephoned every Ed Jablonski in the Manhattan phonebook and actually found him.
“I told him I loved George Gershwin and was from Bay City, too, and he invited me over,” Cole said. “When I got there, I played a medley of Gershwin’s songs and Ed told me I sounded just like George, and how George could make a piano laugh.”
Jablonski was so impressed that he played several tapes and early Gershwin broadcasts for Cole and then two weeks later invited him to come back and play for Gershwin’s sister and brother Ira, Gershwin’s friends, Harold Arlen, and some of Jerome Kern’s family.
“It was like a twilight zone playing to all these people,” Cole said. “I tried to capture George’s sharp rhythms and his humor. Music is a road map. It’s what’s behind the notes.”
He said he was amazed when they all complimented him on how similar his style was. A bond was forged and this visit became an annual pilgrimage.
“But I was 15. I thought: what to do with this? I had the chops to do classical but I loved the American song book, the theater, Hollywood. Gershwin was a natural fit,” he said.
Cole decided to use his technique and craft to become a champion of this music. In the past 30 years, he has played with hundreds of orchestras internationally, shared the stage with everyone from Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand to Dawn Upshaw and William Warfield, recorded numerous discs and become the go-to guy for Gershwin.
But with all these performances, he’d never played Carnegie Hall.
“This is huge, huge, huge for me,” Cole said.
He could hardly contain himself, when in March, Steinway asked him to come to the hall to try out which piano he would like to use for the May 7 concert.
“This has been better than a Hollywood script,” he said laughing.
Cole said the Second Rhapsody is different than Gershwin’s other piano works. Rather than being a commission, the music was written as a dream sequence for a 1930s film “Delicious.” There was eight minutes of music that Gershwin expanded into a full work. He was also experimenting with more complex orchestrations.
“It’s the toughest piano part of the four concertos he wrote. It’s dense with complex rhythms and many layers. It’s a lot to tackle,” Cole said. “I’ll try to find the romance and play my heart out. I’ll not try to play like George, but I think I can capture some of the electricity and the freshness . . . as if the ink is still wet.”
For those interested in hearing the ASO at Carnegie Hall — 500 from the Capital Region attended in 2011, there may still be special “hometown fan” seating or travel arrangements possible. Call the orchestra office at 465-4755.