George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" is one of the towering works of the American musical canon. The piece has melodic themes hummable by people around the globe; straddles jazz and classical in a manner unprecedented in its time, and still unduplicated today; and seems to capture the aural essence of America, from the bustle of Broadway to the rattling locomotive Gershwin was on when he started to compose it in his head.
Its inherent nationalism makes it even more astounding that a new live recording by all-European artists that has caused a sensation in Italy is on its way to the United States.
"Rhapsody in Blue" (Decca), a collection of Gershwin works including the iconic title piece, features Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani and conductor Riccardo Chailly leading the Gewandhausorchester, Germany's esteemed symphony orchestra. It started as an Italy-only project on the Decca calendar, but was optioned for wider release because of its success; markets include Germany, France and the United States-where it'll be released on March 22.
"Rhapsody" shot to No. 8 in its debut week (Sept. 13, 2010) on Italy's blended genre charts, between Iron Maiden's "The Final Frontier" (No. 7) and Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" (No. 9). It has gone on to sell more than 50,000 units, according to the label-a feat for a classical release in any country.
"You make a project with investments involved and you have to expect some measure of success. Otherwise, you're crazy," says Universal Music Italia GM Mirko Gratton, who executive-produced the album. "But the result is overwhelming."
The project started as a dream for Gratton, who manages classics and jazz and was therefore well-acquainted with Bollani and Chailly, both of whom enjoy high profiles in their native Italy. He knew that Bollani-a Renaissance artist who writes novels and children's books, in addition to playing diverse musical styles with classical technique-had performed Gershwin before, and that Chailly had the ability and flare to breathe new life into the often-recorded material. "He's a conductor who can really bring classical music to the people, like Leonard Bernstein did in the '70s," Gratton says.
Gratton introduced the two at a seaside resort where Chailly was on holiday and Bollani happened to be playing a concert. "My main role in making this happen was to create an opportunity for the two of them to meet," he says.
Their rapport was instant. A glance at the album cover-with a mischievous Bollani staring up over the keys at a buoyant Chailly, baton in hand-immediately shows that what resulted wasn't your average classical performance. Bollani showed up in tails and bright white wingtips-a potential wardrobe malfunction at the very staid Gewandhaus in Leipzig-and even swapped witty repartee with his maestro, requesting an order of linguine while playing exuberant variations on "Rialto Ripples," a four-minute ragtime romp thought to be Gershwin's first composition.
"It's completely verboten to [speak during a performance]," says Joseph Oerke, VP of Deutsche Grammophon and Decca Classics U.S. "But you can hear that all the performers were sizzling, on fire. This recording blows away the idea that Americans somehow own Gershwin."
Oerke is setting up the U.S. release by letting the album do the talking. "Our approach is to get this into the hands of tastemakers and influencers," he says. "The strongest sell is getting people to listen to it-sending it out, following up and if a few people spark on it, it will grow."