Symphonicity performance: An American in Paris – errr, make that Cuba

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A report by Daniel W. Boone for The Virginian-Pilot.

With a nod to National Hispanic Heritage Month, Symphonicity will begin its new season with all Latin American music but not necessarily by all Latin American composers. Known primarily for “Rhapsody in Blue” or “An American in Paris” among others, the American composer George Gershwin wrote an overture about a Caribbean adventure that is rarely heard today.

It was written during a time when being an American in Cuba was as common as a vacation to the Florida Keys. But time and politics have all but silenced its tuneful message.

In 1961, the United States severed its diplomatic relations with Cuba. The overthrown pro-American government had been replaced by Fidel Castro in 1959, which led to a signed trade agreement with the Soviet Union.

The Cold War had invaded the hot south. This brought a dramatic halt to commerce and culture which had long been exchanged freely.

During the Spanish-American War, members of The Onward Brass Band, the leading band in New Orleans, enlisted and served in Cuba. And although their music reflected the influence of African culture in America, they acquired a new and distinctive musical sound of the Caribbean.

These new rhythms were heard as the band marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue in a Victory Parade in 1898. And all of it led to the early blueprints of jazz–a distinctively American musical art form.

Enter George Gershwin. He was only a baby at the time but over the years became one of America’s most famous pianists and composers.

His trademark jazz-influenced symphonic sound was innovative and popular. It perfectly represented the sophistication of Western classical music with the raw originality of America’s jazz idiom.

By February of 1932, Gershwin was 34 years old and famous. His choice to vacation in Havana, Cuba was attention-grabbing. He had already played with famous Cuban musicians but being there on the island was itself quite the overture.

Cubans treated him well, providing him with an array of music-making opportunities, special concerts and even time on the radio. He carefully notated some of the music shared with him.

He was particularly inspired by the rhythms of the rhumba. This was a rhythm he had heard for decades via Latin American influences. But like any authentic cuisine, it tasted different when prepared by natives.

Gershwin’s testimony was documented in a composition called, “Rhumba,” which he later renamed, “Cuban Overture.”

Much like the Cuban-inspired New Orleans musicians from more than 30 years earlier, Gershwin shared his experience in New York with a grand premiere later that year.

He said of the performance, “It was, I really believe, the most exciting night of my life. Some 17,845 people bought a ticket to hear it.”

That was 1932, and in those days the conveyance of foreign culture by a famed American artist was alluring. By 1937 at only 39 years of age, Gershwin died tragically. His life was short but his melody of cultural richness remains.

One might wonder what art hasn’t been heard, created or shared since the death of American-Cuban relations in 1961? This lack of sharing has harmed more than commerce and well-being. It has silenced a vibrant song between peoples.

As you listen to the clicking claves, the shaking maracas, the hip-swinging bongos and the lush melodic tunes of Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” you hear both the sound of the past and the future dancing together.

How we build a bridge now in a post-Gershwin and post-Cuba/America era remains to be seen. But if history is any guide, music is a great place to start. ( visit symphonicity.org for more information.)

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