Imagine the New York Philharmonic performing the best of the Rolling Stones. How would the patrons react to screeching guitar licks? What would the critics say about the vulgar sexual overtures?
It may seem farfetched, but in 1924, band leader Paul Whiteman tried an equally audacious experiment. He brought his club players into a black-tie concert hall to present a classical interpretation of a musical hybrid, pop/jazz, which evoked images of bordellos and squalid neighborhoods.
The result, "An Experiment in Modern Music" at New York City's Aeolian Hall, reaped broad audience acclaim and critical acceptance. If it didn't entrench jazz in classical concert halls, as Whiteman hoped it would, the concert helped make popular music "respectable," Whiteman a successful pioneer and 25-year-old composer George Gershwin a force in "serious" music.
It was the arrival of Broadway tunesmith Gershwin on the classical scene that established the concert on Feb. 12, 1924, as a watershed in American musical history. Under Whiteman's aegis, Gershwin presented his 3-week-old composition, "Rhapsody in Blue," on piano. The rest of the Aeolian Hall performances are sweet memories of the period's most popular tunes, but Gershwin's contribution stands out as a sparkling outgrowth of the era when elements of classical, jazz and popular music coalesced.
Today at 3 and 7:30 p.m., in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a group of musicians will resurrect that performance, duplicating everything from the Whiteman arrangements to the wing collars the Palais Royal Orchestra wore on that historic day.
Conductor Maurice Peress decided in 1983 to re-create the concert while researching Whiteman's career for a PBS documentary. He noted the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Aeolian Hall event, and recalled, "I said to myself, 'Somebody's got to do this.' "
In the ensuing months, Peress searched for original texts from music libraries and other sources. Faced with several musical gaps, he spent months transcribing notes from Whiteman's studio discs.
The conductor also went to painstaking lengths to find every type of instrument played in the concert, which included the flugelhorn, octavion, euphonium, banjo, Chinese temple blocks and gong.
The most elusive instrument proved to be the heckelphone, a member of the double-reed family that is an octave lower than the oboe. "I think that we must have done 15 to 20 phone calls," Peress recalled, before he eventually found one at New York's Metropolitan Opera Company.
After gathering some of the most distinguished jazz and classical musicians in New York, Peress mounted the show on the exact date and time that Whiteman did, only a block away from the Aeolian Hall, which is now a college building.
"People just eat it up," says Peress of the show, which earned almost as much praise as the original and has since traveled to Rome. "I did not expect that that single event in 1984 would continue," he says.
One human link between the two concerts is Kurt Diertele, an 86-year-old violinist who played in both performances. Still professionally active in Los Angeles, where he performs scores for TV shows such as "Magnum, P.I." and "Hill Street Blues," Diertele flew to New York at Peress' request to join the orchestra in two pieces.
In both concerts, 1924 and 1984, Diertele received a standing ovation. But in 1984, the applause was only for him. "Just because I was able to walk out and do it," Diertele jokes.
He was conducting the music for a Broadway production of "Macbeth" when one of Whiteman's musicians asked him to play in the Aeolian Hall concert. "That one concert changed my whole career," Diertele says. The performance was such a success that Whiteman embarked on his first coast-to-coast tour and Diertele subsequently spent 11 years with the orchestra as its concertmaster.
In the time leading up to the concert, Whiteman artfully hyped his $11,000 cultural gamble, treating composers, music critics, authors and other opinion wielders to luncheons at his club, the Palais Royal. He invited guests such as Victor Herbert, Gilbert Seldes, Walter Damrosch and Carl Van Vechten to dress rehearsals and discussed the music with them afterward. "Even before he went into Aeolian Hall, he had impressed a lot of powerful people in the music industry," Peress says.
According to Peress, Whiteman first envisioned his band's work as a serious art form during a 1923 trip to England, where his orchestra played at several private parties whose guests included the prince of Wales, and received considerable praise. Upon his return to the United States, he began planning for a concert hall debut.
"The intention of the concert was basically to promote the Whiteman orchestra," says Thornton Hagert, a music researcher who produced the Smithsonian Collection's Aeolian Hall album. "What they were proposing was that the dance orchestra had become so skilled and resourceful with American music that it could now take on serious music.
"They had a very confused idea about where to go," Hagert adds.
For the 2,000 seated in Aeolian Hall, the 2 1/2 hour production may have been erratic, with selections as diverse as "Yes We Have No Bananas," "Pomp and Circumstance" and "Livery Stable Blues." But it was still a thriller.
Diertele remembers the long applause and seeing Whiteman, a rotund man with a slick, black mustache, mobbed by admirers after the concert. "The acceptance was so unanimous that you thought that this was something new in music." In his review for The New York Times, Olin Downes called the concert "unconventional" but remarked, "The audience packed a house that could have been sold twice over."
In fact the concert didn't provoke unanimous raves, but it easily evaded the barbs Whiteman had feared. Some found the show vulgar, pretentious and boring, Hagert says, but Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" gave the program artistic credibility.
That Gershwin managed to mount his opus in time for the concert is impressive in itself. Five weeks before the performance, he spotted a newspaper item announcing that his work would be part of Whiteman's effort to determine the essence of American music.
Gershwin had agreed to write an extended jazz work for Whiteman in November 1923, according to Hagert, but had no timetable or idea for such a work. When Whiteman announced the concert, Gershwin was taken by surprise.
A few days later, inspiration hit him: "I was on a train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty-bang that is often so stimulating to the composer . . . and I suddenly heard -- and even saw on paper -- the complete construction of the 'Rhapsody' from beginning to end," he is quoted in one biography.
Whiteman loaned Gershwin his own arranger, Ferde Grofe', to orchestrate the work, allowing Gershwin the time to develop the piano soloist's score.
The Aeolian Hall crowd greeted the piece with boisterous applause and repeated standing ovations for Gershwin. Critics responded with equal force, though not all of the reviews were raves. H.O. Osgood, writing in Musical America, declared "Rhapsody in Blue" to be "better than Stravinsky's 'Le Sacre du Printemps,' " but Lawrence Gilman of the New York Tribune panned it: "Weep over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive." Most categorized the work as inventive and vigorous, but disorganized and redundant, Hagert says.
For Dick Hyman, a pianist for the 1985 performance, Gershwin's accomplishment was his ability to take contemporary American music and mold it into "a lasting monument." And Hyman adds: "The 'Rhapsody' is the one thing that came out of the concert that not only survived, but created a whole new genre."