KUER 90.1 – Utah Symphony debuts a ‘Red, White & Blue’ ode to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

by Ciara Hulet

Listen to Interview at KUER 90.1

The jazzy, wailing clarinet notes that open George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” are iconic. It has been an instantly recognizable backing track for everything, from the Olympics to United Airlines’ friendly skies.

For pianist Jeffrey Biegel, with Rhapsody’s approaching centennial next year, now is the perfect time to pay homage to it.

“It’s the kind of American music that embraces the diversity of America at the time,” Biegel says of Gershwin’s famous Jazz Age composition. “[It] embraced different cultures, different nationalities, different peoples. And he put it all together into one cohesive piece of music.”

“Rhapsody in Blue” debuted in concert at New York’s Aeolian Concert Hall on Feb. 12, 1924.

Sitting at a piano in Salt Lake City’s Abravanel Hall, home to the Utah Symphony, Biegel begins to play a bouncy Latin rhythm from Gershwin’s piece. “And then [Gershwin] put in the catchphrase, ‘Good evening, friends,’” he says, singing the words as plays.

Biegel believes this reflection of the 1920s Manhattan “melting pot” has staying power because “it means something more than just the music.” So he decided to take that idea and refresh it for the 2020s — because a lot has changed in the last century.

That culminated in the commissioning of Peter Boyer to create a new piece of music, “Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue.” Biegel will debut it with the Utah Symphony on June 30 at the Deer Valley Music Festival.

The name is a tip of the hat to Gershwin and reflects the American flag. The opening sounds gallantly patriotic and some notes pop like fireworks.

Biegel says the new composition portrays the tradition of different cultures in the country. And, like Gershwin’s piece, there are rhythms to show that many people still migrate to the U.S. from Latin American countries today. As he explains, Biegel bounces the piano keys with the energetic Latin notes of the newly commissioned Rhapsody.

He stops and plays a tinkling tremolo on the upper keys, and then the music turns slow, sweeping and reflective, meant to convey the beauty of the country.

“It just takes you like you’re on an airplane going over the Grand Canyon,” he says. “So [the composer’s] giving you a little bit of America the way it is today, the way it was 100 years ago, but just with a new take.”

What the music doesn’t reflect about the country today is the division. For Biegel, the music doesn’t need to because “those things cycle.” Whereas, he notes, Gershwin’s work has endured.

“Music is a language that is supposed to bring us together.”

For the past three years, Biegel has been working to reach all the people he’s trying to represent in this music. He’s doing what he calls “musical archeology” — digging online to find phone numbers, emails and social media pages for orchestras around the country. And not just top-tier symphonies, but also community and youth orchestras. Plus, he’s done fundraising so the organizations don’t have to pay a composer’s fee.

His goal is to honor Gershwin’s renowned composition, and set the stage for the country’s 250th anniversary in 2026, by performing “Rhapsody in Red, White & Blue” in all 50 states. So far, he is scheduled to perform with 48 orchestras in 44 states, including the Utah debut.