Here’s the concept: Take four classical works for piano and orchestra by noted American and British non-classical musicians, apply first-rate musical talent and production values, and voilà! — as easy an album to recommend as has shot out of my loudspeakers in months.
The album title comes from its first track, composed in 2008 by — wait for it — pop legend Neil Sedaka. Before you roll you eyes, did you know that years before his hits, the young Sedaka earned a scholarship to Juilliard’s prep division as an aspiring virtuoso pianist? As far as subsequent career path is concerned, he made the right choice. I mean, the world has plenty of virtuoso pianists. But it has only one creator of “Calendar Girl,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” etc. ad gloriam.
Sedaka describes the work in question, “Manhattan Intermezzo,” as “a journey through the musical diversity of Manhattan. As a lifelong New Yorker, I wanted the audience to feel the spirit of the city, exploring its melting pot of nationalities. I tried to incorporate the sounds of the city where I was born: Latin, Asian, Russian, Broadway, and the New York of today and yesterday.” Playing like a medley of catchy tunes you think you should recognize but don’t, the “Intermezzo” (orchestrated with plenty of pizzazz by veteran all-around musician Lee Holdridge) exudes ingenuousness without ever devolving into kitsch. Just like Neil Sedaka’s great records.
We move then from the world of Brill Building pop to the galaxy of progressive rock — “prog” to its friends and enemies alike — with the 1977 Piano Concerto No. 1 (does anyone know of a Piano Concerto No. 2?) by Keith Emerson. You probably know Emerson best as keyboardist and chief composer for Emerson, Lake & Palmer, perhaps the foremost purveyors of musical excess in prog, a genre rarely celebrated for its restraint. (If you haven’t yet, please read David Weigel’s “Prog Spring,” a superb multi-part history of the genre for Slate.)
Compared with Neil Sedaka’s “Manhattan Intermezzo” which trods the easy path also trodden by such cinematic classics as the “Warsaw Concerto” (played by Valentina Lisitsa here) and the “Cornish Rhapsody” (played by Liberace here), Emerson’s Concerto has far higher aspirations. Why are you not surprised? The piece begins with a bleepin’ 12-tone row, for chrissake, although Emerson, once establishing his avant-garde bona fides, immediately moves on to more congenial Shostaprokofiev territory. The best of the Concertos three movements by far is the zesty and noisy third, “Toccata con fuoco” (“with fire”), where any pretense toward classical propriety is thrown overboard, except for the rather limp and unnecessary middle section. Memo to rockers who want to go classical: Keep it rocking. That’s what you do best, and that’s what classical music needs most from you.
Let me pause here to offer boundless and obsequious praise for the album’s solo pianist, Jeffrey Biegel. He’s got all the technical firepower anyone could want, and has all the tone color and suppleness of phrasing these works demand. What really stands out, however, and what unfortunately cannot be assumed of pianists with similar gifts, is the absolutely impeccable timing with which Jeffrey intereprets the vernacular rhythms when things get jazzy or start to rock. The lack of such timing has ruined many an attempt of classical musicians to “let their hair down,” and end up making fools of themselves in the process. Bravo!
Finally, a pair of rhapsodies from American musical immortals, Duke Ellington’s 1943 “New World A-Coming” (arranged by Maurice Peress) and George Gershwin’s 1924 “Rhapsody in Blue” (as orchestrated by Ferde Grofé). Why has the former never achieved the fame of the latter? Ellington’s is after all the more “significant” of the two, named for journalist Roi Ottley‘s eponymous book calling for racial equality. In his “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington,” biographer Terry Teachout offers this explanation: “Ellington was fond of the piece and performed it often in later years, but ‘New World A-Coming’ never caught on with the listening public, no doubt because it contained none of the indelible melodies that make it easier to forgive the twenty-five-year old George Gershwin his own youthful ignorance of how to put together a large-scale musical composition.”
Well, hardly any American works have the melodic appeal of “Rhapsody in Blue,” the only classical piece on ASCAP’s 1999 list of the most-performed songs and works of the 20th century (thanks in large part, no doubt, to its use in string of American Airlines commercials, the broadcasts of which count as “performances” in ASCAP’s lingo). On its own terms, “New World A-Coming” has plenty of elegant melodic charm and nostalgic (some might say dated) appeal. In the Ellington, Jeffrey Biegel recreates the cadenza improvised on a 1988 recording by the late jazz pianist Sir Roland Hanna. In the Gershwin, Jeffrey restores more than fifty measures of music deleted without Gershwin’s participation by Harms Music prior to the Rhapsody’s original publication. And he plays the living daylights out of both.
Oodles of kudos also to Paul Phillips, known locally as long-time maestro of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, and the occasionally overtaxed but very game musicians of the Brown University Orchestra. Once you get used to the less-than-fully-professional standard of playing, you can get back to enjoying the music. Score yourself a download here (go for the FLAC 16-bit — that’s an order!). It’s not on the streaming services yet, but Naxos subscribers can stream it here.