I saw recently that classical pianist Gary Graffman was performing somewhere in town. That made me think of his most famous recording, the soundtrack of Gershwin music for Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The highlight of the disk, the reason for owning it, is Graffman’s powerful treatment of Rhapsody in Blue—you know, the United Airlines music.
That was reason enough for me to haul out the Manhattan soundtrack CD and pop it in the boombox. For Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue represented “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” But for most of us, it is inextricably linked with New York—the grandeur and power, the grittiness and cacophonous energy.
Listening to Graffman capture all of that, sometimes playing alone, sometimes backed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, I remembered long ago hearing recordings of Gershwin playing Rhapsody in Blue on solo piano. It was of course on YouTube. I love the Internets. Here it is, in two parts.
Here’s part two:
I’m happy to report that Graffman’s performance stands up beautifully in comparison, feeling just as complex, in turn just as powerful, as haunting. And yes, he has an entire orchestra behind him, but he plays long passages solo. When the Manhattan soundtrack came out on vinyl, the first side was Rhapsody in Blue. The second side is a wonderful mix of other Gershwin tunes—some complete songs, others mere snippets—used as incidental music in the film. Ranging from lush, romantic renditions of tunes like Embraceable You and Someone to Watch Over Me to an almost comic treatment of Lady Be Good that never fails to make me think of Bugs Bunny crossing some swell hotel lobby, removing white gloves one finger at a time.
Taken as a whole, this album perfectly mirrors the love letter to New York that Allen’s film was, evoking a New York that, to many, no longer exists. And as wonderful as New York is to me now, it makes me wish I’d known the earlier one too.
And finally, I mentioned the United Airlines advertising campaign that used Rhapsody in Blue. Here’s an example of that, a rare 60-second commercial the airline used to “rededicate” itself to business. Ten points if you know who the voiceover talent is.