> William Russo - George Gershwin [GPJ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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William RUSSO (b.1928)
Street Music, op.65
Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra, op.50
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)

An American in Paris

Siegel-Schwall Band: Corky Siegel, harmonica and electric piano, Jim Schwall, guitar, Al Radford, bass, Shelly Plotkin, drums
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Seiji Ozawa
Gershwin and Russo Street Music recorded May 1976, Cupertino Flint Center at DeAnza College USA
Russo Three Pieces recorded June 1972 ibid
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON ‘The Originals’, DG 463 665-2 [73:38]


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Over the past eighty years or so, there have been many attempts at combining popular and ‘classical’ elements. A few have been undoubtedly successful, such as Milhaud's La Création du Monde or Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, some have found popular success despite their shortcomings – Rhapsody in Blue being the obvious example – while there are those that have been generally adjudged honourable failures, such as Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto (though my cat Ebony would probably disagree).

William Russo is a jazz trombonist as well as a composer, and his two pieces on this disc have some attractive moments. The ever-present danger however, with this sort of hybrid, is that the styles are watered down, or rather dumbed down, in order to achieve a satisfactory co-existence. That tends to happen in Street Music, so that the ‘classical’ elements, mostly represented by the instrumental groupings, seem strait-laced and have difficulty in letting their hair down, while the jazz elements seem crudely ‘groovy’. There is, however, some wonderful playing from the soloist, the remarkable Corky Siegel, who doubles on harmonica and piano, producing sounds on the former that I for one had certainly not heard before – wailing glissandi, growling tremolandos, imitations of jazz trumpet and human voice, and so on. Great stuff, but not enough to conceal the essential thinness and occasional tedium of this music. I do defy you, though, to resist tapping your foot to the catchy hoe-down rhythms of the fourth movement.

Actually, DG haven’t served the composer well, in that the first of the Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra brings more of the same kind of vaguely bluesy moanings as begin Street Music. How much more satisfying to have placed An American in Paris between the two Russo pieces, thus gaining more contrast and sparing Russo’s blushes over his two rather similarly conceived works. That said, I find the Three Pieces, which antedate Street Music by seven years or so, a more engaging piece. The first movement features the jazz group playing bouncy ‘rum-ti-tum-ti’ riffs, while the orchestra spins long slow, often quite dissonant, melodic lines - rather like bumping along in a country bus watching grand, distant scenery pass sedately by.

The other movements are the central one with important solos for oboe and violin (violin soloist Stuart Canin is credited, so why not the oboist?), and more boppy music for the finale. This is more light-hearted and a little less strenuous than the first movement, but uses many of the same techniques. Most of it is built over a repeated bass riff, but there are some interesting episodes, such as the one beginning with sinister chords in muted trombones.

The ending of Russo’s third piece pays tribute to Rhapsody in Blue, whether consciously or not, which leads nicely into An American in Paris. This is given a bright, colourful performance by Ozawa and the San Franciscans, helped by a sparkling recording, which has survived its twenty-four years or so of existence exceptionally well; this is a really competitive version of Gershwin’s little masterpiece, complete with honking motor horns etc., and it is a pity that it’s tucked away amongst this otherwise unremarkable music.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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