An American in Paris – Program Notes

Ryan Haskins, Music Director & Conductor

Inon Barnatan, Piano

Program Pieces & Movements

Maurice Ravel

  • Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2
    (1875-1937) (1912)


George Gershwin

  • Concerto in F
    (1898-1937) (1925)
    I. Allegro
    II. Adagio – Adante con moto
    III. Allegro Agitato


Inon Barnatan


Edward K. “Duke” Ellington

  • Harlem
    (1899-1974) (1950)


George Gershwin

  • An American in Paris
    (1898-1937) (1928)

Program Notes

About Inon Barnatan

“One of the most admired pianists of his generation” (New York Times), Inon Barnatan has established a unique and varied career, equally celebrated as a soloist, curator and collaborator. A regular soloist with many of the world’s foremost orchestras and conductors, he served as the inaugural Artist-in-Association of the New York Philharmonic for three seasons.

This winter sees his return to the Chicago Symphony and London Philharmonic, his debuts with the Liverpool Philharmonic and Montreal Symphony orchestras, and recitals based on his “Time- Traveler Suite” album. Released on Pentatone in November 2021 , “The Time Traveler’s Suite” merges Baroque movements by Bach, Handel, Rameau and Couperin with movements by Ravel, Ligeti, Barber and Thomas Adès to create a unique baroque-inspired suite, culminating in Brahms’ Variations on a theme by Handel.

During the first part of the 2019-20 season, Inon played with the symphony orchestras of Minnesota, Dresden, Barcelona, Stockholm, Ottawa, Innsbruck, Tenerife and Los Angeles, recreated Beethoven’s legendary 1808 concert with the Cincinnati Symphony, and finished recording the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Alan Gilbert and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. When public concerts stopped during the pandemic, Barnatan recorded concert films and streamed performances with the symphony orchestras of Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Detroit, New Jersey and San Diego, conducted Mozart and Beethoven concertos from the keyboard with the Seattle Symphony, performed the U.S. premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s Piano Concerto with the New World Symphony, and played numerous recitals and chamber music performances online.

The recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant and Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, Barnatan is also a sought-after recitalist and chamber musician, and in 2019 he embarked on his first season as music director of La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest in California, one of the foremost music festivals in the U.S. During the 2019- 20 season he played solo recitals at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall and reunited for a European tour with his frequent recital partner, cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

Passionate about contemporary music, Barnatan has commissioned and performed works by many living composers, premiering pieces by Thomas Adès, Sebastian Currier, Avner Dorman, and Andrew Norman, among many others.


The inauguration by impresario Serge Diaghilev of his company the Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet) in Paris was a watershed in classical music. The ambitious producer was responsible for helping realize some of history’s bestloved ballet scores. Whetting audiences’ appetite with non-dance presentations from 1906-08, he tried in 1909 commissioning multiple prominent composers resident in France to create new music for his dancers.

One of those was Maurice Ravel, a controversial figure for his undeniable talent yet seeming inability to gain ultimate establishment recognition. By some accounts Ravel had already met Diaghilev or an associate very early in the producer’s time in Paris. In any case, Ravel’s father died in 1908 and the composer moved with his elderly mother and brother to a central Paris apartment complete with electricity. It was a productive period for the nocturnal Ravel who only met his engineer brother coming and going on the stairs. Immediately he plunged into intensive discussions with the company choreographer Fokine over the ballet’s plot, derived from Greek and French Renaissance sources without being that faithful to either. A sentimentalized Greco-Roman past was very popular as an artistic subject in France around 1900. The resulting story hammered out over a linguistic barrier between collaborators is a love and adventure tale of antiquity. Making matters no easier was Ravel’s inscrutable demeanor as related by a friend and biographer:

However great his liking for you, however close the friendship, the tone of his greeting barely changed. Added to which, he was always incapable of adjusting the expression of his courtesy to the age and standing of the person he was addressing, with the result that the young felt much more at home with him than people of importance…

The staff of the Ballets Russes undoubtedly felt themselves in the latter category. Nonetheless, Ravel was impelled by sympathy for the subject and professional rivalry, having seen Igor Stravinsky’s ballets and wanting to surpass his contemporary and frequent critic Reynaldo Hahn. By May 1910 the piano score was finished and Ravel began the daunting orchestration process with the very large ensemble needed, not to mention chorus (later to prove a sticking point with Diaghilev and often omitted as tonight).

However, Ravel sensed something not ideal about the musical content and made a fateful decision to recast the finale in 5/4 meter, a time signature alien to ballet dancers at the time; Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—making even greater rhythmic demands—wouldn’t come along until 1913. The portions Ravel had orchestrated were played in concert in 1911, a harbinger of the way Daphnis has mostly been known since.

Finally in spring 1912 rehearsals began. Diaghilev, remembered for his injunction to “astonish me,” was a little too astonished and skittishly wanted to cancel on the basis of what he heard from the piano. Ravel, already annoyed at the meager financial share allotted him in the contract, had his publisher assure the maestro that hearing the music orchestrally would make it all worthwhile.

The nervous dancers and producers fulfilled their role that summer, but only for two performances. The sensuous splendor of the music, aligned for Ravel with eighteenth-century French painting, didn’t mesh with the spirit of the stage design. Moreover, the ballet’s action didn’t unfold evenly: long set pieces contrasted with surprisingly abrupt dramatic events, perhaps a byproduct of those latenight translation sessions between Ravel and Fokine. The musical work itself is at once Ravel’s longest, most opulently scored, and by many critics’ estimate best. He described it as a “vast musical fresco” and “choreographic symphony” owing to its construction based on keys and musical motives. Yet his treatment of those elements is very different from what listeners would expect or hear in most symphonies, and the instrumental color is still what impresses most strongly.

By 1913 the suites we know today were extracted and tonight’s (the second) is the more often performed. It takes up the action after Chloé has already been abducted and saved from pirates. A beautiful and ecstatic dawn in nature is musically revealed. Daphnis, awakened by herdsmen, relocates Chloé, and after initially rejecting him they reenact the mythological love of Pan (complete with the faun’s attribute of flute) and Syrinx. The cast of nymphs, shepherds, and young girls becomes increasingly enthralled celebrating the main characters’ love during the bacchanalian frenzy which Ravel so heavily expanded. With the coming of WWI in 1914 the pastoral and extravagant world of Daphnis would feel as remote as ancient Greece itself.


Accounts of Gershwin’s concert music from his lifetime almost invariably include hand-wringing about his technical merits, or lack thereof, in comparison to entirely classical composers. There was a much deeper divide between musical genres a hundred years ago and it seems strange to us listeners would be conflicted about a written-out work in a classical form with elements of jazz (in the widest sense). Perhaps our freer perspective makes it easier for us to enjoy Gershwin.

Famous from his Rhapsody in Blue and stage musicals, George Gershwin was a major New York musical figure by 1925 in his mid-twenties. The conductor of the New York Symphony Society was German-born Walter Damrosch who introduced Brahms and Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces to America. He was convinced enough by Gershwin to recommend a commission for a full piano concerto. The young composer was contracted to present the work with himself at the piano the following season for $500, about $7,500 in today’s funds. It was a pittance compared to Gershwin’s income on popular songs and shows the depths of his commitment to acceptance by the classical establishment.

He was soon off to London for one of his stage productions, claiming to buy books on musical structure to bolster his efforts on the concerto. We should recognize his statements in interviews often displayed a keen sense of heightening commercial interest and can’t always be taken literally. But certainly Gershwin relentlessly sought musical self-improvement.

Returning home he briefly considered calling the piece a “New York Concerto.” Gershwin’s house in the city was also home to his parents and siblings, never mind the constant parade of friends each resident brought along for ping-pong and merrymaking. Accordingly Gershwin tried renting nearby hotel space and eventually making his way in summer 1925 to Chautauqua by Lake Erie at the invitation of the Juilliard School’s president. It was all intended to provide peace and quiet for composing but Gershwin was followed everywhere by admirers and curious students. With much of the piano score now finished, he returned to New York for the performance season.

Just as he needed tutelage in form, Gershwin consulted books and friends on orchestration, the assigning of specific notes to instruments, one of the fingerprints of a composer. Ferde Grofé had scored the earlier Rhapsody in Blue, so this was a new endeavor. A visitor recalled Gershwin in his fifth floor space at home, busy orchestrating the concerto, while “there must have been six other people talking among themselves, having tea and playing checkers.” The amiable Gershwin was unperturbed. He achieved some memorable effects, including the slow movement’s three clarinets with muted trombone to “give the effect of steam whistles in the far distance.”

The concerto as a whole follows the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern, here loosely described as a Charleston dance style, the blues, and what Gershwin called an “orgy of rhythm,” respectively. (Those traits led to the work being performed as a ballet by major companies in the 1980s.) Finished in November 1925, the concerto received a reading with orchestra during which Gershwin agreed to a few suggested cuts and made changes for the December unveiling in Carnegie Hall. As usual, the audience was on George’s side and the critics were divided, ruminating about whether he should continue with his “jazz” career or switch to symphonies, concertos, and opera—again, a needless dichotomy of the age. Gershwin was generally unruffled by criticism and continued playing the concerto the rest of his short life. “It is not the few knowing ones whose opinions make any work of art great,” he explained, “it is the judgment of the great mass that finally decides.”


Duke Ellington straddled American popular and art music in the same generation as George Gershwin but was gifted with almost twice the lifespan. Thanks to their complex harmonies and construction, Ellington’s compositions often went over the head of his critics who expected something easier from a touring bandleader. His jazz idiom focused less on singable tunes and more on instrumental color and virtuosity than did Gershwin’s music theater background.

By WWII Ellington was an annual feature at Carnegie Hall, even premiering a 48-minute suite, Black, Brown and Beige. While not repeating such a massive project, he continued to look to classical styles for inspiration of genre: rhapsodies, concertos, and tonight’s work that could equally well be called a tone poem or concerto grosso owing to its juxtaposition and contrast of players as Baroque composers employed centuries before.

The NBC Symphony and Arturo Toscanini, its celebrity conductor, wanted an array of pieces celebrating New York, so they commissioned Ellington along with Vernon Duke, Don Gillis, Skitch Henderson and Sigmund Romberg. However, tonight’s contribution was heard first with Ellington’s band alone in January 1951 at a benefit for the NAACP at the Metropolitan Opera.

In A Tone Parallel to Harlem, we take a tour of the neighborhood much as Gershwin did in An American in Paris also heard tonight. The composer outlined his narrative with deliberate simplicity:

It is Sunday morning. We are strolling from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood toward the 125th Street business area. Everybody is nicely dressed, and on their way to or from church. Everybody is in a friendly mood… You may hear a parade go by, or a funeral, or you may recognize the passage of those who are making our Civil Rights demands.

He intended the opening trumpet motive to match the syllables of the name Harlem itself. While he often accepted suggestions from band members about their parts, Ellington had no interest in learning to write for strings; his practice was to hand a six-line score with scribbled ideas to arranger Luther Henderson for full orchestrations. In this version Harlem was heard that same June with the band and 70-strong NBC players minus Toscanini, hardly known for jazz. Another arrangement with orchestra was made by conductor Maurice Peress.

By 1951 Ellington appeared on his record cover in concert tails complete with liner notes comparing him to Stravinsky and Gershwin. Selections were predominately or entirely longer than the few minutes of a jazz standard. Harlem was included on the 1953 album Ellington Uptown. George Avakian, head of popular albums at Columbia Records recalled “…(Ellington’s) greatest interest was in his longer compositions, not in the short pieces… (B)oth of us had that thought in mind.” Inevitably such albums sold fewer copies than earlier, more crowd-pleasing compilations, and despite his producer’s faith Ellington left the company temporarily over their meager promotion of this more demanding repertoire. In 1963 he was able to record Harlem with orchestra in Europe and made it a centerpiece of State Department-sponsored tours to the Soviet Union where it was a greater challenge to find a good steak—the staple of his diet—than appreciative audiences.


One of the most beloved American orchestral pieces, Gershwin’s An American in Paris reveals its creator as a self-described “modern romantic.” Its linear narrative from the standpoint of a hypothetical character gives the music an essentially Romantic viewpoint. A little over two years had passed since the Concerto in F and Gershwin was itching to expand his musical horizons, staying busy as a show composer but wanting to test his mettle without leaning musically on the piano, his own instrument.

A 1928 trip to Paris was, as usual for Gershwin, a family affair with his brother Ira (a key collaborator on his stage works) and sister, besides Ira’s wife. It wasn’t his first trip to the French capital but this time he came armed with a letter of introduction from Maurice Ravel (also on tonight’s program) to study with Nadia Boulanger the legendary composition teacher. Both figures declined to take him on, probably cognizant of his personal originality. Unlike many composers who describe specific locales in their music, Gershwin created An American in Paris onsite, even shopping for taxi horns to include in the orchestra for having precise (or more aptly, imprecise) pitches required for a cacophonous effect.

The score shows Gershwin’s love and knowledge of music literature with whiffs of Ravel and “Les Six” (modern French composers), not to mention one of his favorites, J.S. Bach! It was finished in November on returning to New York. Having promised it to Walter Damrosch for his faith in the Concerto in F, the famous young composer had to decline other premiere offers. Dedicated as he was, Damrosch was perhaps not the ideal interpreter of the new work. At the helm of the newly merged “New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society” he conducted it too slowly and programmed it alongside a Wagnerian assortment that modern audiences would find bizarre as castmates to Gershwin.

That December event included an extensive programmatic narrative by Deems Taylor pointing out descriptive details of the protagonist’s Parisian sojourn. Gershwin himself was more succinct:

My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere. The opening gay section is followed by a rich ‘blues’ with a strong rhythmic undercurrent. Our American friend, perhaps after strolling into a café and having a few drinks [this was during Prohibition in the U.S.], has suddenly succumbed to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simple than in the preceding pages. This ‘blues’ rises to a climax followed by a coda in which the spirit of the music returns to the vivacity and bubbling exuberance of the opening part with its impressions of Paris.

Again the reviews were wildly divergent, though by this time it had to be admitted Gershwin as concert composer was here to stay. Comparisons were made to fellow American John Alden Carpenter’s less felicitously named Adventures in a Perambulator.

George reprised his habit of loitering in the standing room section for the next day’s performance, ceremoniously buying his paramour Kay Swift jewelry rather than remain to hear Wagner’s Magic Fire Music. Partly as a result of Damrosch’s sluggishness, Gershwin took up conducting the following year and made his debut in none other than An American in Paris. It became famous through an altered version in the classic 1951 Gene Kelly movie of the same name, which also features a sequence of Concerto in F. Inauthentic as it is, that version illuminates the piece as the “rhapsodic ballet” Gershwin had in mind.

Perhaps the key to understanding this nostalgic work is its curious inspiration, best left for last. Looking out at the scenery from his New York house, Gershwin had imagined what it would be for a traveler longing to return to that captivating vista, revealing a capacity for seeing through the eyes of others: “The Hudson River and the sunsets over the Palisades, the little tug boats and the ocean liners, the funny looking phut-phut-phutters, the graceful birds and the imitating aeroplanes—an ever-changing picture.” His reflection aligns with the melancholy, however temporary, of our traveling American, and opens the door to the empathy required of an opera composer as Gershwin became in Porgy and Bess.