Fairfax Symphony Orchestra Pays Tribute to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”

Keith Loria Art & Culture

The Fairfax Symphony Orchestra concludes its season 4 p.m., Sunday, June 9, at George Mason University Center for the Arts.

The centerpiece of the performance is a brand-new piano concerto by American composer Peter Boyer, inspired by Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue” with which it is paired.

Fairfax Symphony Orchestra | Christopher Zimmerman, Conductor | Credit: Daniel Corey
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra | Christopher Zimmerman, Conductor | Credit: Daniel Corey

“Our season finale is a celebration of great American orchestral music, old and new, known and unknown,” said Christopher Zimmerman, FSO’s music director. “We’re thrilled to present the Virginia premiere of this important work with the virtuoso performer for whom the piece was written, the great American pianist Jeffrey Biegel, who commissioned the work.”

Boyer is one of the most frequently performed American orchestral composers of his generation. His works have received more than 700 performances by 250-plus orchestras around the world.

“The thrill of communicating with an audience with a great orchestra playing my music is something that really doesn’t get old,” Boyer said. “It still drive me very much.” 

Peter Boyer by Dario Acosta
Peter Boyer by Dario Acosta

“Rhapsody in Red, White, and Blue” takes the form of a single multi-sectional movement—following in the style of Gershwin—that contains allusions to blues influences and depictions of iconic American vistas.

Biegel knew for years that this was something he wanted to do. 

“I created this idea; I didn’t have the title yet, then came COVID and I had a bit more time, and I came up with the title, ‘Rhapsody in Red, White, and Blue to do what Gershwin did 100 years earlier—encapsulate what America was like at the time,” Biegel said. “I went to a few composers to talk about the idea but they weren’t the right fit for it. I knew Peter would be because of his success with ‘Ellis Island’ and his overall writing themes.”

Jeffrey Biegel | Credit: Jerry LoFaro
Jeffrey Biegel | Credit: Jerry LoFaro

Biegel reached out to Boyer to write the piece to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Gershwin’s landmark masterwork, gave him the title and told him what he was looking for. 

“He commissioned me four years ago, in early 2020, looking ahead to this special anniversary, as he wanted a companion piece to be performed alongside it or by itself,” Boyer said. “Because it was a very particular commission, I had to hit some particular marks, so this had to be a piece that in some way would tip my hat to Gershwin and his famous ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’”

But the composer knew he didn’t want to just imitate that, and spent a lot of time studying the original composition from 1924, which he had never really done to a great deal before.

“I wanted to delve into it and pay homage to that style but still do things in my own way,” Boyer said. “Just as George Gershwin really captured the energy and optimism in his time in the mid 1920s, I wanted to do the same for America today. Particularly, because we are living in such challenging times, music can be a vessel for uplifting people, and I wanted to capture that as well.”

The money for the composition came from the Rhapsody National Initiative, which Biegel started. 

The work was first performed by Biegel last summer when he played with the Utah Symphony. His goal is to have it performed in all 50 states. 

“He had a very ambitious vision for this piece,” Boyer said. “This will be the Virginia premiere and it’s been done in nearly 30 places already, which is pretty remarkable. The plan is to finish every state by 2026. The fact that it will be played across the country over a few years is very gratifying.” 

The event closes with a performance of “Gaelic,” the only symphony written by unjustly neglected American composer Amy Beach. Originally penned in 1894, this was the first symphony composed and published by a female American composer.

“It’s a beauty,” Zimmerman said. “Inspired by other great composers of her time—Dvorak and Elgar—this music has irresistible power, charm and beauty drama.”

Tickets start at $49. For more information, visit www.fairfaxsymphony.org.