Music Commentary Series: Jazz and the Piano Concerto — Who Will Program?

This post is part of a multi-part Arts Fuse series examining the traditions and realities of classical piano concertos influenced by jazz. The articles are bookended by Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts: the first features one of the first classical pieces directly influenced by jazz, Darius Milhaud’s Creation of the World (February 19 – 21); the second has pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet performing one of the core works in this repertoire, Maurice Ravel’s Concerto in G (April 23 – 28). Steve Elman’s chronology of jazz-influenced piano concertos (JIPCs) can be found here. His essays on this topic are posted on his author page. Elman welcomes your comments and suggestions at

Gustavo Dudamel -- The LA Phil’s Music Director embraces risk. Photo:

Gustavo Dudamel — The LA Phil’s Music Director embraces risk. Photo:

By Steve Elman

It’s often said that American symphony orchestras take very few risks. As I came to the wrapup of my survey of JIPCs, I began to wonder: is this true? Are there any US orchestras that might be inclined to take a chance on a JIPC?

In September 2014, I conducted a content analysis of the 2014-15 seasonal programs of 23 US symphony orchestras, looking for JIPCs, examining which works for piano and orchestra were programmed most frequently, and searching for programs that demonstrated intelligence, creativity, and, for want of a better word, cross-pollination – that is, the quality that comes from juxtaposing works that illuminate and enrich each other. My data might be depressing for anyone who wants a lot of novelty in the concert hall. But I found that some orchestras are taking more risks than the pessimists say.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic (music-directed by Gustavo Dudamel) and the San Francisco Symphony (music-directed by Michael Tilson Thomas) are undoubtedly the most risk-embracing American orchestras, at least in this season (each boasts five or more programs that promise something unusual or distinctive). Even the New York Philharmonic, which draws on one of the biggest and most sophisticated populations in the country, hews to a predictable line (the two programs that veer from the predictable are a staged version of Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake in June, and a Chinese New Year program featuring Chinese composers and Yo-Yo Ma in February. Our own BSO may be unfairly judged by having a season only partly constructed by its new music director, Andris Nelsons, but at least in this year, the pioneering spirit of Serge Koussevitzky seems to have had little impact. (A brilliant exception: the program on February 19, 20, and 21, evoking the spirit of Paris in the 1920s with music by Milhaud, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Poulenc.)

I included two minor orchestras – the Buffalo Philharmonic (music-directed by JoAnn Falletta) and the American Symphony Orchestra (music-directed by Leon Botstein), because their directors are known for their adventurous spirits. Falletta did not disappoint; she came up with an all-Ives program and a Polish-composers program (Chopin, Karlowicz, and Penderecki), both in April, and a full production of Molière’s Le Bougeois Gentilhomme with music by Richard Strauss in October and November.

The American Symphony is a horse of such a different color that its work is not comparable to that of any other orchestra – but as a result, its programming has no impact on my general observations below. It is truly the exception that demonstrates the truth of the rule. Botstein is offering two concert-opera productions of works unfamiliar to me (Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner and Max von Schillings’s Mona Lisa), four thematic concerts (example: Requiem for the Twentieth Century in December, featuring Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, Ligeti’s Requiem and Schnittke’s Nagasaki), and an in-depth examination of three well-known works with performances that include discussion and analysis beforehand.

As for the seasons of other orchestras in the survey – those in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, DC (the National Symphony), Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Minneapolis (the Minnesota Orchestra), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Saint Louis, Salt Lake City (the Utah Symphony), San Diego, and Seattle – there is little beyond the standard repertoire.

A number of the big orchestras shore up their commitment to the unconventional with notable composers-in-residence, a dedication to the commission of new works (a tip of the hat here to the BSO), and / or connection to a new music festival (like the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “Next on Grand” series and Cincinnati’s “MusicNOW” concerts).

JoAnn Falletta

Conductor JoAnn Falletta — Bringing an innovative spirit to the Buffalo Philharmonic.

With these exceptions (and more noted below), American orchestra programmers, whoever they are (even including Dudamel, Tilson Thomas, and Falletta), seem to be driven by a set of basic principles:

• When in doubt, program Mozart. 22 of the 23 orchestras surveyed programmed at least one Mozart piano concerto. There will be a total of 39 Mozart piano concerto performances across the country by the end of the 2014-15 season (not counting multiple performances of the same program). No other composer comes close.

• You can never go wrong with a Rachmaninoff piano concerto (or the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini) featuring someone young and attractive (or a popular older star). 15 of the orchestras programmed at least one of these works, and there will be 23 Rachmaninoff piano-and-orchestra performances by the end of the season.

• When in doubt at Christmastime, program Handel’s Messiah. 9 orchestras make this an annual tradition (and, incidentally, the music director almost never conducts it).

• Devote at least one concert each season to a single composer, preferably Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or Mozart. For example, nine orchestras are presenting all-Beethoven programs, and six of those are presenting more than one. There are 13 all-Tchaikovsky programs, and ten each for Mahler and Mozart.

• If your music director insists on doing experimental or unfamiliar music, try to get him or her to do it in the second part of the season, as close to the end as possible. Even in the case of the San Francisco Symphony, 12 of the 20 “difficult” pieces are in the second half of the year.

• When you program an unfamiliar work (not necessarily modern – just something beyond the top 100), program something very familiar on the same program to counterbalance it, preferably in the second half so that concertgoers will be forced to listen to something they don’t know to get to something they want to hear.

This last principle has become a commonplace, the standard for nearly all the classical concerts in the US that include works beyond the standard repertoire. It results in what radio people recognize as “counterbalanced” programming. Nearly everyone in radio (classical and otherwise) knows that counterbalanced programming doesn’t work in that medium; the listener who wants to hear Mozart (or the Beatles) is unlikely to sit through Penderecki (or Anthrax) to get there. The station that programs them one after the other ends up only with listeners who like them both.

What is working in radio (that is, still working today, even in these days of dwindling audience) is “narrowcasting” – establishing a core esthetic of well-known and valuable music with one or more of the three qualities of appeal that I’ve previously mentioned (singable melody, danceable rhythm, spiritual uplift), and providing some variety with unfamiliar music that shares those qualities of appeal. It’s a philosophy of continuity, not variety.

Michael Tilson Thomas -- Celebrating his 70th birthday this year, and still one of America’s most adventurous Music Directors.

Michael Tilson Thomas — Celebrating his 70th birthday this year, and still one of America’s most adventurous Music Directors.

This approach could never be precisely applied to symphony orchestra programs, but nonetheless, I wonder why so few programmers try to make any thematic connections among the works on an individual program. When they do, they usually choose the all-one-composer approach  mentioned above, and the occasional all-baroque or all-impressionists concert. Some orchestras are offering individual programs with intriguing themes and / or musical connections that stand out from the ordinary, but there are so few of these that I can list 13 of the most notable here without taking up too much space (yes, I freely admit that I am biased towards those programs that are jazz-influenced):

• San Diego Symphony’s “Scottish Fantasy” program, October 2014: Maxwell Davies’s “Orkney Wedding”; Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy”; and Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony

• St. Louis Symphony’s “Seasons” program, December 2014: all four of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos; Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915”; and Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll”

• Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Tragic Lovers in Russian Ballet” program in February – March 2015: suites from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”

• Boston Symphony, February 2015: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite; Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto; Darius Milhaud’s “Création du monde”; and Poulenc’s “Les biches”

• Indianapolis Symphony, February 2015: Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F; John Adams’s “Lollapalooza”; Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring”; and Bernstein’s Dance Episodes from “On the Town”

• New York Philharmonic’s “Chinese New Year” program, February 2015, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, with works by Lin Zhao and Li Huanzhi

• Minnesota Orchestra’s “Spirit and Spring” program, April 2015: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, Messiaen’s “Oiseaux exotiques”, Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending”: and Respighi’s “Church Windows”

• Philadelphia Orchestra’s youth-oriented “Animals in Music” program, April 2015: Roussel’s “Spider’s Feast”; Prokofiev’s “Peter & the Wolf,” with a claymation film by Suzie Templeton; pieces from “Les animaux modèles” by Poulenc; and Saint-Saens’s “Carnival of the Animals”

• Atlanta Symphony, April – May 2015: Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G; Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite; Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”; and the premiere of a Michael Gandolfi Sinfonia Concertante

• Dallas Symphony’s “Hollywood Exile” program, May 2015: Korngold’s Sea Hawk Overture; Stravinsky’s “Scherzo á la russe”; Schoenberg’s “Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene”; and Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound Concerto

• San Francisco Symphony’s “Creation of the World” program, March 2015: (Ives’s “The Unanswered Question”; Sibelius’s “Luonnotar”; Milhaud’s “Création du monde”; and Adès’s “In Seven Days”

• And two programs from the Los Angeles Symphony: contrasting visions of America from Dvorak (New World Symphony) and John Adams (City Noir) in March; and a juxtaposition of keyboard-oriented works by Brahms and J. S. Bach in May

I should probably give honorable mention to two more programs featuring single composers: in November 2014, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Los Angeles Symphony in Varèse’s Amériques, and in May, Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in The Seasons and Renga by John Cage. That’s some gutsy programming.

There are more than 500 different programs on the schedules of the 23 orchestras surveyed. There are other examples among them of creative-narrowcast efforts, but these 15 are the most distinctive and the ones most likely to provide satisfying and perhaps enlightening musical adventures, at least as I see it. But I am not the average listener.

I am not being critical of orchestra management by citing all these data. There is no reason to believe that American classical music listeners want anything other than what they are being given. In fact, market research probably would indicate that average concertgoers think their orchestras are being too adventurous. If there were any significant demand from the public for new music, atonal music, chance music, or rigorous minimalism, orchestras would program works incorporating these elements with pleasure. If these sorts of works could bring in droves of new listeners, orchestras would play them, since most of them are fighting for their lives.

41ldaHXj+RLFinally, back to my central topic: what about jazz influences? Is there room for a JIPC or two in the 2014-15 concert programs? Yes.

In fact, the most popular JIPC, Ravel’s Concerto in G, is programmed by seven different orchestras this season (the Atlanta Symphony, the BSO, the Chicago Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony). It may surprise you (it certainly took me aback) to learn that it appears more often in US concert halls this season than any other single work for piano and orchestra other than Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. This may be due partly to Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s interest in the work – in addition to his performances in Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago, he’s playing it in Munich and Valencia. But each of the other four US performances is by a different, less-than-superstar pianist, and this year does not mark some significant anniversary of the composer’s death or the work’s date of composition. It may be reasonable to assume that the popularity of the Ravel concerto is simply due to the fact that audiences like it and come to hear it.

Number two on the JIPC list is Gershwin’s Concerto in F, and it is programmed as well, although not nearly as frequently, and not by any of the major orchestras. Of the orchestras I surveyed, only the Buffalo Philharmonic (with Alain Lefervre, JoAnn Faletta conducting) and the Indianapolis Symphony (played and conducted by Jeffrey Kahane) are programming it in the 2014-15 season. There will be two more performances of the Gershwin concerto in major US concert halls (in Los Angeles and Seattle), but these will be played by a foreign orchestra, the London Symphony, on tour with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting and Yuja Wang soloing. However, the BSO deserves a round of applause for programming it in the upcoming Tanglewood season opener (July 3), with Kirill Gerstein, in an appealing all-American program that includes Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby and Ellington’s Harlem.

Rhapsody in Blue, though not a concerto, fares a bit better. There are three performances – by the San Francisco Symphony, with Tilson Thomas and Wang again, by the Saint Louis Symphony (with Kirill Gerstein) and by the Buffalo Philharmonic (with Kevin Cole).

Apart from these two works, the rest is silence. Jazz-influenced concertos and concertinos by programmable composers – Arthur Honegger, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, William Bolcom, Avner Dorman, and John Adams among the outstanding candidates – are ignored, not to mention top-quality works by composers who are not programmed with any regularity (Erwin Schulhoff, Jean Wiéner, Arthur Benjamin, William Schuman, Tobias Picker, William Thomas McKinley, and Yehudi Wyner).


I’ve already noted the reluctance of classical-music audiences to accept anything unfamiliar, even pieces that are easily approachable or downright tuneful.

Even when an orchestra makes some slots in its season available for unfamiliar music, the programmers usually parcel them out to music that is at least marginally marketable – less-well-known works by big-name composers or recent compositions, especially premieres. A premiere of a new work almost always seems to be preferable to the revival of an unjustly-neglected piece by a living composer. A work by a composer who has died without producing a “hit” seems to be even less desirable. Unfortunately, many of the most interesting JIPCs fall into this last category.

I could also cite what could be called The Great Discontinuity – the gap that opened in the 1930s and 1940s between traditional repertoire and music from composers who wanted to make something dramatically new. The rift effectively severed the great line of composition stretching from the Baroque through Classicism, Romanticism, and Impressionism. Audiences were forced to declare their allegiance to the past or the future. The result was not surprising, but it tarred all new composition with the same dangerous stain. New works of, say, Rachmaninoff or Ravel had been greeted with interest, even excitement, but after  The Great Discontinuity new music was generally met with suspicion or hostility from the mass audience. Attitudes began to shift with the arrival of the minimalists and neo-melodists in the later part of the century, but mainstream listeners today are still wary.

Finally, opening our focus even more broadly, there is the technological revolution that has transformed the public’s perception of music and the value of the experience of concert-going. In the early twentieth century, disc recordings and music on the radio ushered in the golden era of Background Music, which thrives today. Music had been a commercial commodity to a greater or lesser extent before this revolution, and its use as background for social occasions and in restaurants or venues for dancing was well-established at least by Mozart’s time. But when music was only occasionally available, works of great ambition or profound effort usually called for a listener’s full attention. After Background Music became available to anyone at any time, music accelerated its progress toward becoming Product. Now, technology encourages listeners to text their friends in a concert hall while listening to the most skilled musicians of any era perform Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (despite admonitions from other concertgoers and management). Asking the average listener to concentrate on a piece of music has begun to seem an unpardonable intrusion on his or her precious spare time.

Who will program? Who will buy? Who cares?

One can curse the darkness, or try to shine a light. And fortunately, technology offers unprecedented access to music that might never otherwise be heard – old and obscure recordings posted on YouTube (usually without compensation to the artists), contemporary classical concerts on, commercial recordings on Spotify, Pandora, and their analogues, the vast resources of music for sale on Amazon, ArkivMusic, and other online retailers, along with more ideas that are just glints in the eyes of software developers as I write.

I will do my best in forthcoming posts to shine that light, and wherever possible, guide you to the actual experience of hearing music that I hope will satisfy a thirst you never knew you had.

To help you explore other compositions mentioned in the piece above as easily as possible, my full chronology of JIPCs contains detailed information on recordings of these works, including CDs, Spotify access and YouTube links.

Next in the Jazz and Piano Concerto Series — The Great God George: Gershwin and his Impact

Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.

He is the co-author of Burning Up the Air (Commonwealth Editions, 2008), which chronicles the first fifty years of talk radio through the life of talk-show pioneer Jerry Williams. He is a former member of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame.

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