George Gershwin’s 1924 composition “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of the most iconic pieces of American music. As much a part of our cultural lexicon as Mickey Mouse or Willie Nelson, it has been the theme music for United Airlines commercials for 40 years and has been featured in movies ranging from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” to Disney’s “Fantasia 2000” to Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” It also has influenced countless other composers, from Leonard Bernstein to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
And yet, after nearly 100 years, that opening glissando clarinet line can still give listeners a chill down their spines. It certainly does for Bangor Symphony Orchestra music director Lucas Richman, who will conduct the beloved piece with the orchestra and piano soloist Andrew Staupe at the BSO’s season-opening concert on Oct. 9 at the Collins Center for the Arts.
As Richman recalled, however, during an interview at his Bangor home, “Rhapsody in Blue” very nearly did not come to be. It wasn’t until Gershwin was under the gun to come up with a new piece that he began going back through old melodies and creating a few new ones, which eventually were pieced together to become “Rhapsody.”
“Gershwin read in the newspaper that a new piece, by him, was going to be premiered in a few weeks at Aeolian Hall in New York. He had no idea,” Richman said. “He was suddenly thrust into composing this piece.”
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The BSO’s entire program for Sunday’s concert follows the spirit of “Rhapsody in Blue.” It’s an all-American slate of programming, featuring four pieces written throughout the 20th and 21st centuries by entirely American composers, spanning from 1924-2016. The concert opens with “Celebratory Overture” by Peter Re. Re was the BSO’s conductor from 1964-1976, and the overture was commissioned by the BSO in 1996 for the orchestra’s 100th anniversary. Re passed away in July 2016.
“We had scheduled this piece as it was, but as he passed away this year, this has of course become a memoriam for our former music director,” Richman said. “We’re delighted that his family will be in attendance.”
After Re’s piece, the BSO will perform a Maine premiere, with Christopher Theofanidis’ “Dreamtime Ancestors,” a new work co-commissioned by 48 regional orchestras, including the BSO, as part of the New Music for America consortium. The piece was inspired by the Australian Aboriginal tradition and the often mystical connections between children and their ancestors.
In his six years with the BSO, Richman has made a point of including at least one — if not several — new compositions in each season, including a number composed by Richman himself.
“It’s important for orchestras to play music of living composers of our time and our country. If we only play music by dead white guys, we’re just re-enactors,” Richman said. “Playing music of American composers can be very inspiring to future musicians.”
Before concluding with “Rhapsody,” the BSO will perform “On the Town: Three Dance Episodes,” a medley of musical themes and melodies from Leonard Bernstein’s beloved musical. Besides the fact that Bernstein in the late 1980s was a mentor to a young Richman, Richman was in a high school production of “On the Town.”
“It was a show I did in high school. I actually played one of the sailors. It’s music that is very near and dear to my heart,” Richman said. “Having a program of all American composers is a really special thing.”
The BSO has several other events planned for October, including two performances by BSO musicians as part of ARTober, the City of Bangor’s month of the arts. These include a performance by the Ceolta Cello Duo, comprised of BSO cellists Noreen Silver and Marisa Solomon, at 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at Nocturnem Drafthaus, and Halloween Hijinks, a children’s concert by the Juniper String Quartet, set for 4 p.m. Oct. 29 at the Bangor Public Library.
The Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s season-opening concert is set for 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9 at the Collins Center for the Arts. Tickets range from $15 to $45 and are available at bangorsymphony.org or by phone at 800-622-TIXX. Student tickets are available for $10. A $4 facility fee applies to all tickets.