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The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert: Marcus Roberts shines in Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue'

Pianist Marcus Roberts performs during the London Jazz Festival on Nov. 17, 2012.
Andy Sheppard
Pianist Marcus Roberts performs during the London Jazz Festival on Nov. 17, 2012.

Join us on Sunday, May 5 at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1 and Monday, May 6 at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2 as The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert features a special presentation of Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky, and the Symphony No. 2 by Kurt Weill. The Marcus Roberts Trio adds extra improvisatory flair to the Rhapsody, and the Orchestra is led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The concert opens with one of Stravinsky’s landmark ballets for the Ballets Russes, the adventurous company based in Paris in the early 20th century. The scenario centers around a bumbling puppet common to many cultures. In Russia, he is Petrushka. The puppet theaters of Italy present him as Pulcinella. In France, he’s known as Pierrot, and in England, he’s Punch. Whatever his name, this puppet character is notorious for his scheming, his rebellion, and his fits of temper and ineffective violence. Stravinsky represents him with triads in different keys played together, and the resulting dissonance is intended to capture the contradictions of his nature. The ballet premiered in 1913; Stravinsky revised and streamlined the orchestration in 1947. The Orchestra performs that full version of the ballet.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin explains the programmatic arc of the concert
Yannick Nézet-Séguin explains the programmatic arc of the concert

The concert includes another work completed in Paris by an expatriate, 20 years after the Stravinsky ballet. Nézet-Séguin calls the Second Symphony by Kurt Weill “a masterpiece of German music,” and has championed this music, which is all-too-seldom performed. As he worked on this symphony in 1933, Weill was already famous for his theatrical collaborations with Bertolt Brecht, especially the The Threepenny Opera. And his non-stage works saw success as well.

When the Nazis seized power, though, Weill knew he had to leave. A Jewish composer of music that Hitler considered “degenerate” would never be safe in Germany, and his socialist-leaning political views didn’t help. Weill fled to Paris, where he finished writing his Second Symphony. The work premiered in Amsterdam the following year under the baton of Bruno Walter, who became its champion with performances in various European cities and in New York. Audiences embraced the symphony. But critics were slow to see its value, and thereafter Weill concentrated on theatrical projects and songs. The Second Symphony would prove to be his last work for the concert hall.

The masterful jazz pianist Marcus Roberts brings his trio to the stage of Verizon Hall for the culmination of this concert: a centenary celebration for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered 100 years ago in 1924. On that occasion, the composer was at the piano, improvising solo passages that later became enshrined in the score. But there’s plenty of room for the soloist to return to that improvisatory approach, and that’s the special flair that distinguishes this performance. “Jazz musicians have always enjoyed improvising on Gershwin’s themes,” Roberts comments in an interview with WRTI’s Nate Chinen. “Rhapsody in Blue encapsulates that opportunity for us to establish, in the case of my version, a true delving of the piece into the actual jazz environment.”


Stravinsky: Petrushka

Weill: Symphony No. 2

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue 

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor

Marcus Roberts, piano

Jason Marsalis, drums

Martin Jaffe, bass


Melinda Whiting: Host

Alex Ariff: Senior Producer

Joseph Patti: Broadcast Engineer

Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcasts every Sunday at 1 p.m. on WRTI 90.1, streaming at WRTI.org, on the WRTI mobile app, and on your smart speaker. Listen again on Mondays at 7 p.m. on WRTI HD-2. Listen for up to two weeks after broadcast on WRTI Replay, accessible from the WRTI homepage (look for Listen to The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert On Demand).

Melinda has worked in radio for decades, hosting and producing classical music and arts news. An award-winning broadcaster, she has created and hosted classical music programs and reported for NPR, WQXR—New York, WHYY–Philadelphia, and American Public Media. WRTI listeners may remember her years hosting classical music for WFLN and WHYY.