Northampton Press

Saturday, July 11, 2020

American-made: Allentown Symphony explores impact of Gershwin, Copland

Friday, January 25, 2019 by DIANE WITTRY Special to The Press in Focus

George Gershwin and Aaron Copland are two of the most recognized and respected American composers of the last century. They were born in Brooklyn, N.Y., just two years apart: George Gershwin, in 1898, and Aaron Copland, in 1900.

Both composers were known for exemplifying and developing the “American” sound in music: Copland, for capturing the folk and pioneering spirit, and George Gershwin for incorporating jazz and saxophones into his orchestral pieces.

Each traveled extensively, and for a time lived in Paris. Copland studied with the famous composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Gershwin attempted to study with Boulanger, but she refused him, saying he was doing fine the way he was. She did not want to disrupt his already established creative musical voice.

He was disappointed, but while in France he became infatuated with Parisian life and wrote his famous piece for orchestra, “An American In Paris.”

Written in 1928, the piece captured the energy of the streets of Paris, complete with a set of tuned taxi horns. The horns were not like modern-day car horns, but rather were those crazy black bulbs that you squeeze, that a clown might use. I had one on my bicycle when I was young. The piece calls for a set of four of the horns, and they are tuned to specific pitches.

“Appalachian Spring & Rhapsody In Blue,” the Allentown Symphony Orchestra concerts, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9 and 3 p.m. Feb. 10, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown, feature the music of Copland and Gershwin. We will perform some of their most iconic pieces, including Gershwin’s “An American In Paris” in its original version, which includes not only the four tuned taxi horns but also three soprano saxophones.

George Gershwin loved the saxophone and included the instrument in almost all of his orchestral compositions. In honor of this, we are having a special event, 6-8 p.m. Feb. 5 in Miller Symphony Hall, led by New York saxophonist Paul Cohen. We are putting together a Saxophone Orchestra to perform. Can you imagine a stage full of just saxophone players?

If you would like to join us for this performance, as a saxophone player or an observer, more information is available on the website,, under Educational & Community, Saxophone Festival 2019.

Cohen owns one of the largest collection of saxophones in the United States, and he will be bringing many of these instruments to demonstrate at 6 p.m. Feb. 5, and will also have them available for saxophone participants to try out and play. People of all ages are invited to this free community event.

Other pieces by George Gershwin that feature the saxophone that will be performed by the Allentown Symphony Feb. 9 and 10, are “I Got Rhythm Variations For Piano And Orchestra” and “Rhapsody In Blue.” These pieces have a strong jazz element and they also showcase a solo pianist. Joining us will be British pianist, Simon Mulligan, who is a popular performer in our “Jazz Upstairs Series” in the Rodale Community Room at Miller Symphony Hall.

Milligan is a master of interpreting the crossover style that Gershwin is so famous for. If you attend the Feb. 9 concert, there’s a special “after-concert” jazz performance, “Simon On Three,” with Mulligan and his jazz trio in the Rodale Community Room. There’s a separate charge for tickets. Reservations recommended:; 610-432-6715.

Another popular piece on the ASO Feb. 9 and 10 concerts program is Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” which was originally written for Martha Graham in 1944 for a ballet performance at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The orchestra for the premiere consisted of just 13 players, since the room and the stage area was quite small.

Wrote Martha Graham: “Of all my ballets, [‘Appalachian Spring’] is the one I cherish the most. ... Aaron Copland wrote the music for me and first called it ‘Ballet for Martha.’ I choreographed it and danced it with my then-husband Erick Hawkins.”

When the Allentown Symphony performs “Appalachian Spring,” we will perform the full orchestra version with about 75 musicians on the stage and we will be featuring dancers from the Ballet Guild of the Lehigh Valley, with brand-new choreography by BGLV Artistic Director Karen Knerr. How exciting to relive a wonderful piece of music in a totally new way and interpretation.

Until the early 1900s, the core of music written for orchestras was written by European composers. George Gershwin and Aaron Copland were two of the first American composers to really make their mark on the symphonic stage, not only with American orchestras. Their music is now played, known and respected all over the world.

Join us Feb. 9 and 10 as we celebrate American music and pay tribute to these two very special composers, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. See you at the Symphony!

“Meet the Artist”: Allentown Symphony Music Director-Conductor Diane Wittry, and pianist Simon Mulligan, noon-1 p.m. Feb. 9, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown. The talk is free and open to the public.

Diane Wittry is Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Music Director and Conductor of The Garden State Philharmonic, New Jersey, and author of “Beyond the Baton” and “Baton Basics.” She teaches conducting workshops throughout the United States and Europe.

Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall Box Office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown;; 610-432-6715. Free student tickets, underwritten by the Century Fund, are available for Allentown Symphony Orchestra concerts.