And the winner is… Rhapsody in Blue

By Michael Lewin
Posted July 2018

Ever since I started playing with orchestras in my teens, I’ve written the date/orchestra/conductor/venue for each performance on the back page of my music. I love seeing my performance history for each concerto, and revisiting the memories of each prior performance.

It is very satisfying to see the performances add up for a particular concerto. But I was rather shocked a few years ago to count and realize that I had played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue 50 times, more than any other piece.

There’s a lot of great personal history written on that back page. I’ve played it with dozens of US orchestras- Miami, Colorado, West Virginia, North Carolina, with the Enescu Philharmonic of Romania, the Thessaloniki State Symphony of Greece, the Cairo Symphony in Egypt and the Youth Orchestra of the Americas in Italy. I’ve done it with the Boston Pops a bunch of times, sometimes with no rehearsal. I’ve played it with concert bands, and with conductors including Keith Lockhart and Carlos Miguel Prieto. I fooled around with it in high school, although my first legitimate performances were with William Henry Curry and the Indianapolis Symphony. Sometimes I’m asked to perform it by itself. Sometimes it’s paired with short pieces like the Gershwin Second Rhapsody (which I love) or the Gottschalk Grand Tarantella. I’ve never played the piano solo version (which I don’t like), but I have done the Concerto in F quite a bit as well.

I used to get upset when I was asked to play it. Why don’t they want the “Emperor?” Don’t they think I’m a serious musician? But it’s so much fun to play, and audiences worldwide love it to death. It’s a popular choice for summer festivals or outdoor performances. And to tell the truth, it takes a lot less effort to prepare and I get paid the same as if I played the Brahms B-flat! I spend so much time with very serious music, there is something liberating about knowing that you are going on stage to have a blast and get a little jazzy and give people so much pleasure.

I certainly never envisioned this being in the No. 1 spot for my most-played concerto. But I grew up in New York, with the American Songbook and all the old Gershwin movie musicals with Fred Astaire, and I knew the music since I was a child. It is in my DNA, and I always had an instinctive sense of how it should swing.

It helped make me realize that I am considered an American pianist, and to define myself that way. I developed a responsibility to play American music and to represent my country and its composers. In my opinion, it’s rare that a non-American quite “gets” Gershwin, whereas one doesn’t have to be Polish to play Chopin, or Russian to play Prokofiev.

So I accept my fate, and look forward to the next 50 times. Here’s to you, George Gershwin. “Strike up the band!”