March 07, 2017

An American in Paris: a note from Andrew von Oeyen about his new album

The American pianist explores the links between Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Gershwin.

I started living in Paris in 2002, at least with one foot. Predictably, I fell in love with a Frenchy. Then, I fell in love with Paris. Finally, I fell in love with French music. (Love of French wine accompanied all stages.) But unlike many of my American friends living in this city who have become true expats, I have always kept my other foot in the United States. For many years it was New York; now it is Los Angeles. I am grateful for the opportunity to live between the two continents and extremely fortunate that my profession allows for this situation. I often say that if someone were to put a gun to my head and make me choose between Europe and America, I would probably get shot.

I’m not sure if I’m more américain-parisien or parisien-américain. Both croissants and bagels appeal to me, as do Hôtel du Nord and Sunset Boulevard. I am as excited to stroll past the elegant apartment buildings where Bizet and Ravel hung their hats, as I am to drive down the Los Angeles streets Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Rachmaninov and Gershwin called home.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that my debut album for Warner Classics presents a Franco-American theme and explores the interplay between the two cultures in the early 20th century. While the links between Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Gershwin were obvious, the thematic connection to my own life came as something of a surprise.

The unifying thread in the program is Ravel, who knew both Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. The latter two composers never met and, apart from their common penchant for melodious, colorful and light music, belong to completely different worlds. While the enduring value of Saint-Saëns’s music has long been questioned, if not even ridiculed (especially by his compatriots), it found favor with the highly critical Ravel. Ravel studied with particular attention the older master’s chamber music and orchestration, later citing Saint-Saëns’s piano concertos, along with Mozart’s, as inspiration for the 'spirit' of his own concerto.

Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, written more than 60 years before Ravel’s concerto in the parallel major key, indeed reveals similar attention to orchestral color, concision and wit yet, unlike the latter, never attempts to enter emotional territory much below the surface. Popularly dubbed 'the concerto that starts like Bach but ends like Offenbach', it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously either, in spite of its quite serious pianistic challenges. Still, passages of great beauty and charm abound in this unabashed bravura work that pays homage to its creator’s days as an organist.

As quintessentially French as they were, Saint-Saëns and Ravel appear to have been America-friendly. Both provided positive accounts of their tours to the US (though the composer of Le carnaval des animaux did complain about the poor treatment of animals in American zoos).

No music outside of the European Continent would influence Ravel more than American jazz, leading him to write in the American press in 1928, 'I like jazz far more than grand opera.' Ravel’s abundant use of jazz in his Concerto in G is undoubtedly the most discussed aspect of the work. But what impresses me is not the 'what' but the 'how': the piece doesn’t reflect a classically trained musician trying to write in another style, thereby diluting, simplifying or mimicking jazz’s core features; rather, it reflects a creator who makes the genre his own, masterfully employing its idioms and without resorting to cliché.

Probably no American composer was more influenced by the music of Ravel than Gershwin, and no French composer more influenced by the music of Gershwin than Ravel. After a series of telegram exchanges, the two met in Paris (the trip that planted the seed for Gershwin’s An American in Paris) and later spent time together in New York and Los Angeles. Their mutual respect is often illustrated by the legendary, perhaps apocryphal, story of Gershwin requesting to study with Ravel, to which the latter replied along the lines of: 'Why would you want to be a second-rate Ravel when you are already a first-rate Gershwin? Plus, you make more money than me, so I should take lessons from you!' While Ravel was in New York, the two attended a jazz club together in Harlem, and Gershwin also played his wildly successful Rhapsody in Blue for Ravel.

But did Ravel ever hear Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody? As it happened, the Concerto in G and Second Rhapsody premiered within weeks of each other. Why the Second Rhapsody has been so eclipsed in popularity by the Rhapsody in Blue remains a mystery to me. It bears all the qualities of Gershwin’s genius and, in my estimation, at times even surpasses its prototype. Certainly it deserves to be played more often, particularly in this original 1931 version.

Andrew von Oeyen's album of piano concertos by Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Gershwin is out now.