Saturday, August 26, 2006

An Evening with Ferde Grofé

Ferdinand Rudolph von Grofé(1892-1972)was an American composer, pianist and arranger. Better known as Ferde Grofé, every school kid has been introduced to at least a portion of his most famous composition "The Grand Canyon Suite". The "On The Trail" movement with its clip clop coconut shell horse hooves is almost a cliché. That does little to diminish the fact that Ferde Grofé was a master at orchestration and a purveyor of lovely, whistleable tunes.

Grofé became famous overnight as the orchestrator of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue as performed by the Paul Whiteman band in 1924. It seemed that the 26 yr old Gershwin did not have sufficient knowledge of orchestration to complete the work. Grofé, as Whiteman's arranger was given the task. After the premiere, Grofé took the score and made new orchestration in 1926 and 1942, each time for larger orchestra. The latter is the commonly heard arrangement for full orchestra.

As Grofé's career took off, he began his series of descriptive suites, drenched in big band and Hollywood style orchestrations. Sweeping, weeping strings, brassy trumpets, chattering winds, amusing percussion effects. Straight out of 1930-40's Hollywood.

Grofé, while mentioned to school kids and such in textbooks, fell out of favor in the world of concert music. Too Hollywoodish (Indeed he composed a Hollywood Suite, reeking with the ghosts of Garbo or Cooper), too light and inconsequential.

But damn the critics, it is fun music, full of color and atmosphere, and sounds uniquely American and even uniquely Grofé. One can see his influence in Gershwin when he began to orchestrate his own works like American in Paris and the Piano Concerto. The wonderful Naxos record label has two discs of his suites.

The Hollywood Suite ends delightfully with a thrilling "Production Number", shades of Busby Berkeley. The Hudson River Suite includes authentic dog barks in "Rip Van Winkle", never failing to arouse Her Majesty's attention, and concludes with a raucous portrait of New York City. The Death Valley Suite features a vivid portrait of a wagon train, you can hear the whip crack and the huge wooden wheels groan and creak, and like the more famous Grand Canyon Suite ends with a vivid storm in this case a sandstorm.

The second album contains the famous Grand Canyon Suite and two lesser known the Mississippi Suite and the Niagara Falls Suite. The Niagara suite evokes the power and majesty of the falls and even one of the huge hydroelectric power plants. Neat stuff!

Grofé does not aspire to expressive depth or complex layers of sound and rhythm but he knew how to orchestrate better than anyone and could effortlessly write a memorable tune. He popularized symphonic jazz, leading the way for Gershwin, Gould and Bernstein among others. His works once panned as shallow and glittery are now seen as charming period pieces from the jazz era.

Great Saturday evening entertainment and worth the bargain Naxos price.

Death Valley Suite; Hudson River Suite; Hollywood Suite
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
William Stromberg
Naxos- 8559017

Grand Canyon Suite; Mississippi Suite; Niagara Falls Suite
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
William Stromberg
Naxos- 8559007

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