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On the 20th century

Pianist Alan Feinberg, one of the pre-eminent exponents of 20th century American music, appears in concert with the New West Symphony Nov. 20 and 21 to play Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Piano Concerto in F.” “It is of course because this is Gershwin’s 100th birthday anniversary,” says Feinberg. “And he will survive even this — the five gazillion performances.”

Feinberg spoke by telephone last week from his home in New York. The three-time Grammy nominee is reluctant to talk in “sound bites” but offers wisdom on Gershwin, musical collaboration and music pedagogy.

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“Gershwin was trying to forge a middle ground between the classic world and the pop world — at a time when both worlds were going in high gear,” says Feinberg. “The jazz world was exploding in the early part of the century, and so was the classical world.

“Rhapsody in Blue starts out more as a kind of jazz piece and has been assimilated into its symphonic condition,” he continues.

“Gershwin himself didn’t score Rhapsody in Blue. There are a lot of different versions of it. In fact, there is no real Rhapsody in Blue. He played the piece in various versions. There must be a dozen different versions. There is no definitive version. It’s a very unusual piece in that sense. There are different orchestrations, people play different notes. The sociology of that piece is very interesting.

“But the music has persisted in its popularity, undimmed. Basically, people really like it. Whatever its weaknesses are, it’s strengths are clearly greater. In some ways, what’s more American than Rhapsody in Blue? There are compositional weaknesses. We’re talking about this piece of music that’s received like it’s a masterpiece, and yet it’s not there – there’s no definitive version of it.

“A lot of that has to do with the changes in the way people have played it over the years. The initial style of it was a much more high-energy, no-nonsense, very rhythmic, not particularly syrupy style. It reminds me of the energy that went into the building of the skyscrapers or the works projects of the ’20s.”

Feinberg terms current interpretations of Rhapsody “very Europeanized.” “They play with much more rubato [changing the duration of notes], they make big statements, they moon. They treat it like Romantic pieces, with an occasionally funny jazz itch.”

Which interpretation will he use for this concert? “It depends,” he says. “It’s a collaboration.”

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Feinberg will collaborate with New West Symphony conductor, Boris Brott. “You have a session together with the conductor,” Feinberg explains. “You talk about the logistics of having to put something together in a fairly short time. It’s everything from what tempo are we going to play at to how do we handle the trouble spots. It’s basically like getting to know somebody. . . . What’s interesting about collaborating, whether you’re playing chamber music or working with an orchestra and a conductor, is that it’s the human dynamic of people trying to do a task together, trying to find the kind of chemistry that will make it work.

“It depends on the two people involved. Assuming that you’re dealing with two reasonable people who want to do a good job, there’s always a lot of middle ground. There are all sorts of issues. The acoustics of the hall. The flexibility of the orchestra — some need more rehearsal to change the way they’re doing things. One could say the same about soloists, too.

“It is all about communication. . . . You can play with the same orchestra four nights in a row, and you get four different audiences, and the temperature, so to speak, in the hall varies. Audiences differ from country to country. The people who take out a Friday subscription are different from the Saturday night subscription. Saturday night may have more people who are dating. Thursday night may have more board members.

“Think of the audience as a barometer. There’s always weather, whether it’s high pressure or low pressure. . . .

“Playing well is hard,” he concludes. “Being a performer is hard. The whole megillah. Traveling. Being jet lagged. Being often in a place you don’t know, playing on a piano you don’t know. They’re all stressful. It’s not a low-pressure job.”

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The New Yorker also serves as associate professor at the Eastman School and visiting professor at the Juilliard School, where he teaches a graduate seminar on interpreting 20th century scores and 20th century practice. “It’s fairly sad that they need a specialist to do this,” he says. His seminar has nine students.

“One of the real fundamental problems right now in the conservatories is that the curriculum for piano students hasn’t changed very much in the last 50 years, but the music has,” he says.

“Ninety percent of the music that is taught and is considered important is music before this century.”

He polled his nine students. Only one or two had played Prokofiev; few had attempted Ravel and Rachmaninoff. “These are grad students,” he repeats.

Whether cause or effect, the number of recitals of “new” music is in decline. Feinberg says the reasons are interconnected. “There are issues in terms of lack of music education. The Zeitgeist changes. There are changes in demographics in cities. There are changes in the recording industry — there is repertoire that is so over-recorded that no one makes any money off it.”

Alan Feinberg plays Gershwin with the New West Symphony Nov. 20 at 8 p.m. at the Fred Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks; Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center. Tel. 805/497-5880 (Thousand Oaks), 805/486-2424 (Oxnard) or Ticketmaster at 805/583-8700.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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