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Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto is a Musical Bouillabaisse of Jazz and Classical Music

Boris Roger Viollet via Getty Images
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), French composer, in Paris, circa 1920.

How do jazz and classical traditions combine in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major? Susan Lewis asked Russian classical pianist Kirill Gerstein, who, like Ravel, came to America as a classical musician and immersed himself in jazz. 

You can hear Kirill Gerstein play Ravel's Piano Concerto in G on WRTI 90.1 on Sunday, October 27th at 1 PM.

Ravel wrote his piano concerto in G Major after his 1928 tour of America, where he’d heard jazz in New Orleans and New York City.  Pianist Kirill Gerstein studied classical music in his native Soviet Union, and came to America to study jazz at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.

"Ravel's concerto," says Gerstein, "is highly entertaining in the best sense of the word.  It's a concerto with brilliant interplay between different sections of the orchestra and the piano." 

That interplay exists among members of a jazz band, but it’s also part of classical tradition, says Gerstein, pointing to concertos of Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt.  "Both the jazz band and Ravel are onto something that’s very true in music and in ensemble playing."

The concerto also reflects Ravel’s other cultural leanings, says Gerstein.  "A bit of the Spanish flavor that one could trace back to the Basque background that Ravel had, or generally to the fascination of the French composers have had with the Spanish sound."

There was also Ravel's fascination with mechanical toys.  "Little whirring machines and trains and cars. And I think especially the third movement is this kind of perfectly constructed little mechanical toy." 

Jazz was a new ingredient in Ravel’s musical cuisine.  

"It’s not that one can point to a particular point on the plate and say this tastes like jazz. It’s more in the perfume." 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.