American music: Altoona symphony featuring works of George Gershwin

The American-themed 2015-16 concert series of the Altoona Symphony Orchestra will kick off Saturday in a celebration of the first major American orchestral composer, George Gershwin.

The concert will open with Frances Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” and feature two pieces composed by Gershwin, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” It begins at 7:30 p.m. on the Mishler Theatre stage in downtown Altoona.

“It’s very interesting, when you think about American symphonic music, that we know very little about it” before Gershwin, who was born in 1898, said Teresa Cheung, ASO maestra. “He lived a pretty short life … He was only 38 years old when he died” from a brain tumor.

“An American in Paris” was Gershwin’s first major piece, written in 1924. Four years later, he wrote and orchestrated “Rhapsody.”

“It’s a testament to how much he grew in just four years,” Cheung said. “He was just so good at what he did. It was so natural for him. … I never could imagine what American music would have become if he had lived a little longer.”

Guest artist Spencer Myer, whom Cheung met at a music festival in New York City where they both live, will be at the piano for “Rhapsody.” Myer’s orchestral, recital and chamber music performances have been heard throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa and Asia, according to an ASO press release.

Cheung said the two Gershwin pieces are familiar to most Americans, even those not necessarily fans of classical music. “Rhapsody” is the theme song for United Airlines, while “An American” is the basis for a popular 1950s film of the same name starring Gene Kelly.

The ode to Gershwin is only the second half of the upcoming concert, with the first half dealing with “French and American relations,” the maestra said.

Following the “Star Spangled Banner,” only the brass section will play “Fanfare to La Peri,” (or Fanfare to the Flower of Immortality), originally a ballet written by French composer Paul Dukas. That will be followed by music from the opera “Carmen,” featuring the timpani, percussion and strings, as well as guest artists The Penn State Percussion Ensemble under the direction of conductor Dan Armstrong.

Cheung said she is using the season to feature different sections of the orchestra; the next concert will have a piece featuring woodwinds only, for example. And, she said she is “very excited” to have Armstrong – a 33-year member of the ASO – and the Penn State ensemble.

“It’s very unusual to have the percussions being featured in the way it’s going to be,” she teased. Plus, “‘Carmen’ is one of the most popular pieces on earth.”

Seven Penn State students make up the ensemble and will accompany the strings of ASO to perform the music from “Carmen.” Armstrong will be conducting that portion of the concert, enabling Chung to listen to her orchestra.

“I love listening to my orchestra,” she said. “The only way I can really enjoy it is when I’m not on the podium.”

Armstrong said he actually will invite the audience to sing along at one point.

“Some audience members like to sing along to the ASO’s music and that’s usually frowned upon, but this time they can do so without guilt,” he said. “Maestra Cheung will lead the audience members at the proper point in the music.”

Armstrong is principal timpanist with the ASO and is director and professor of percussion studies at Penn State University, University Park campus. He also is principal timpanist with the Academy Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh, and performs summers with the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, in addition to appearances across the country, including Alaska, and England and Scotland.

The percussionist ensemble will include members playing the timpani, marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, xylophone, orchestral chimes, bass drums, tom-toms, snare drums, castanets, maracas, tuned cymbals and more.

“We will take up a bit of room,” said Armstrong.

Cheung said she was inspired to go with an American theme this summer while hearing the story of a long time symphony supporter who, while visiting Paris years ago, stumbled on an advertisement for “An American in Paris” playing in a concert hall there.

“He felt so much pride in being an American, especially being overseas,” said Cheung. “That was so touching, the feelings of nostalgia, especially being someone like me who was not born here. I thought that’s a great way to bring the season together.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.