Within the past year, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” has introduced viewers to Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role of The Great Gatsby and helped transport the U.S. Olympic team to Sochi in a United Airlines advertising campaign. Despite its current ubiquity, however, its initial reception in 1924 was tepid. That year, Paul Whiteman’s Palais Royal Orchestra debuted the piece at Aeolian Hall near Manhattan’s Times Square, as part of a program dubbed An Experiment in Modern Music. On Feb. 12, the concert’s 90th anniversary and Lincoln’s birthday, the entire program was recreated at the Town Hall by conductor Maurice Peress and the Grammy-winning band Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, featuring near-flawless performances by pianists Jeb Patton and Ted Rosenthal, with faithful renderings of the music of Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert. Violinist Andy Stein of A Prairie Home Companion fame played the role of Whiteman.
Joe Franklin, Liza Minnelli and several of Whiteman’s grandchildren were in attendance at the sold-out Town Hall show; Sergei Rachmaninoff, Jascha Heifetz and John Philip Sousa attended the 1924 performance a block away. A jazz-age anthem as interwoven into the fabric of American culture as Yankee pinstripes or Disney’s Cinderella Castle, prior to its canonization, critics of Gershwin’s opus chided the composer for its radical form and orchestration. “There was a guy between Gershwin and Mozart named Debussy who said, ‘Enough of this German form. I want to write music which is continually evolving.’ Debussy wrote his music that way, as did George Gershwin,” Peress told the audience. Peress, a conductor and professor at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, has a pedigree for the Aeolian Hall program, having worked extensively with Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington.