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By Heidi Tanner
Special to The PREVIEW
This Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Pagosa Springs High School the Pagosa Springs Community Band is proud to feature Venita Burch, playing George Gershwin’s famous “Rhapsody in Blue.”
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1898 to Jewish immigrant parents from Odessa, Ukraine. He was raised in the center of the Yiddish theatre district in New York City. He and his brother, Ira, with whom he collaborated throughout his life, frequented the theatres regularly in their childhood. At age 10, he showed an interest in music and began playing the piano, and later studied composition. At age 15, he left school and began working in Tin Pan Alley, which led to success for him writing and publishing popular songs.
“Rhapsody in Blue” was commissioned by Paul Whiteman who was planning a symphonic jazz concert in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, 1924 at the Aeolian Hall in New York City. Whiteman had commissioned several pieces for the occasion from such notable composers as Irving Berlin and Victor Herbert.
Early in January 1924, Gershwin was putting the final touches on the score of “Sweet Little Devil,” which was to premiere in Boston and he had completely overlooked the promise he had made to Whiteman to write a serious piece of music for a jazz concert.
Gershwin initially attempted to excuse himself from his promise, but Whiteman was adamant, and the two agreed that George would write the piece for two pianos and that Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofe, would do the orchestrations. Gershwin was traveling by train to Boston and describes that he suddenly heard and even saw the score for “Rhapsody in Blue” taking shape as he listened to the steely rhythms of the train with its rattlety-bang.
Gershwin further related, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America — of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.”
Thus, “Rhapsody in Blue” was born in the short period of three weeks. The premiere was the highlight of Whiteman’s concert, became an instant favorite and is revered as a blend of orchestral and jazz traditions that are magnificently American.
Although this piece is written for piano solo, the clarinet plays a very important role and sets the tone for the whole piece with its opening ascending slide and sultry crooning of one of the central melodies of the piece.
The Pagosa Springs Community Band is fortunate to have a very fine clarinetist in our ranks, Jarrett Chaney, who puts the icing on the cake, so to speak. Jarrett began playing the clarinet in fifth grade in Monticello, Utah, and continued playing through high school in Monte Vista, Colo. At age 19, he stopped playing and only in the last few years picked the instrument back up after moving to Pagosa Springs … a common occurrence for musicians moving to Pagosa. In addition to playing with the community band, Jarrett also plays with the Southwest Civic Winds in Durango, Curtains Up Pagosa, and the recently-formed Stardust Big Band.
Our piano soloist, Venita Burch, began playing piano at age 8 and by the time she was 12 she was an accompanist at her church and school. At age 13, she began teaching piano. She was a piano major at Pacific Coast Bible College in San Dimas, Calif., and after graduation taught music in a private school in Huntington Beach, Calif., teaching piano and voice on the side. Venita moved to Pagosa Springs with her husband, Dan (Pagosa Springs High School Music Director), in 2006. She became the accompanist for the Pagosa Springs Community Choir and is also currently the accompanist for the Pagosa Springs High School choir. She has a thriving private music school and has played for and mentored the high school students with their musicals and prepared them for All-State auditions and solo competitions.
Venita’s thoughts about playing “Rhapsody in Blue” are that playing a solo piece of this magnitude is a new challenge for her and has pushed her to stretch beyond her normal boundaries as an accompanist. Further, Venita states, “It is a dream come true to solo with a full band and I am honored to be featured amongst so many fine musicians in Pagosa Springs. This is truly an amazing opportunity for me.”
Another point of interest about this performance is that her husband, Dan Burch, will be guest conducting the community band ensemble, which is backing Venita’s performance. Dan and Venita are a dynamic team in Pagosa Springs working together with the Pagosa Springs Community Choir, at the high school, and as worship leaders at Pagosa Bible Church.
Don’t forget that our student bands from the middle school and high school will perform along with the community band this Saturday, March 23, 7 p.m. at the Pagosa Springs High School auditorium. Admission to the concert is free, however, donations for performances are appreciated and gratefully accepted. See you this Saturday evening and we will wrap you in “Rhapsody in Blue.”