A MONTH before the 90th anniversary of the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin’s landmark composition will see another first, this time the public debut of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ruth Brill as a choreographer.

Brill, 25, is an artist and, for those unsure of the ballet pecking order, at the top of the tree are the Principals, followed by First Soloists then Soloists, then First Artists then Artists, a structure which adds a certain piquancy to the exercise.

Not that Kent-born Brill is not up for the challenge. She joined BRB from English National Ballet in 2012 with several awards already under her tutu including National Youth Ballet bronze statuette (2006), Barbara Geoghegan Award (2007), Cecchetti International Ballet Competition (2008) and Cecchetti International Gala (2011).

And as well as dancing she is also fascinated by the process of dance creation, choreography, turning music into movement, an interest which found early expression when she won the choreography cup while studying for A-level dance at the Arts Educational School in Tring in Hertfordshire.

So whenever the opportunity arose for choreography she took it, creating Hit on all Sixes for a BRB choreographic workshop last year with music from the film The Artist put together by “my techie dad” Michael.

She also created Butterfly Effect for Elmhurst School for Dance last year, but it was her eight-minute workshop piece, seen by BRB director David Bintley that was to become create another opportunity.

“It was probably that that planted the seed in his mind. When they were discussing what to do at Symphony Hall the story goes that Paul Murphy, the conductor, said the orchestra would very much like to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and obviously because David was going to be focussing on Prince of the Pagodas there was no way he would have time to choreograph anything like that. 

Hit on All Sixes; Laura Davenport, Laura Day and Reina Fuchigami. Pictures: Roy Smiljanic

"Apparently my name was put forward and I was asked in the summer if I was up for choreographing the piece, which was good as it meant I had a long time to listen to the music and to get ideas.

 “I always wanted to take the opportunity so I grabbed it with both hands and I have been listening to that track on repeat ever since and there is just so much in it that I have never been dry for inspiration”

So Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, as well as being her longest piece, will also be the first in public, before a paying audience, with the full Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under principal conductor Paul Murphy – oh and she has been asked to create the piece by BRB director and internationally acclaimed choreographer David Bintley – so no pressure then.

“I have done outreach things and little pieces for youth ballet companies and such, but this is very different and there is so much more scope when you are choreographing company dancers who can really move and do pretty much anything you ask, up to a point; so this is the biggest opportunity so far, but I am really excited and it is great fun.”

As a member of the corps de ballet, albeit an experienced and established one, Brill had to deal with dancers higher up the ballet food chain but she said: “The reaction has been really nice. I spoke to David at the beginning and gave him a wishlist of dancers I thought would suit this piece and that is who I have ended up working with. I don’t want to be bossing them around, particularly if it is someone more senior to you.

“It has certainly been a learning experience but I just want to get it right. The relationship with the dancers is so important, particularly when you are asking them to come to rehearsals in the middle of a Nutcracker run and everyone else comes in at three in the afternoon and you ask your dancers to come in at 11.

“I hope I have got that balance, but at the end of the day you are telling them what to do and you want to get what you want out of them but I very much want their input if there is something that does not feel right or doesn’t quite make sense to them because, especially with this piece of music.

“I want them to be having a ball up there rather than struggling with the choreography because that obviously comes across to the audience.

Hit on all Sixes; Laura Davenport and James Barton

“It has been great fun and I have worked with very responsive dancers who have been great even though they were all exhausted from Nutcracker.”

Brill is full of praise for BRB and its repertoire, which encourages new music, new pieces and new choreography all helping ballet to evolve.

“David is really pushing for new work and there really are a lot of opportunities.”

And this new work . . .

“My personal approach is that I have listened and listened and listened to the music. The purpose of the piece is for an evening of music and dance, it is about the music and the dancing, it is the orchestra and the dances together.

“I am going to have moments in it when there is no dancing, just the audience listening to the music. It is so amazing there are certain moments we feel we can’t even match with dance

“Also because of the timescale and working around Nutcracker and then a big Christmas break in the middle I wanted to be really productive with the time I have had in the studio so I have broken it up into various sections in my head and come in to most rehearsals with clear ideas of what I want to do with each section mapped out in my mind.

“You need to know what you want when you come into the room because you are the one creating the whole thing. It is your chance to show the audience what you have created.”

And in the midst of the creative process there is an extraordinary link between Ruth Brill in 2014 and George Gershwin in 1924, the same piece but 90 years apart.

Gershwin was to tell his official biographer Isaac Goldberg in 1931 that he had heard and formulated the whole construction of Rhapsody in Blue on a train journey from New York to Boston.

Brill, working on the piece on her day off, said: “I have random moments of inspiration. I find on the train I often have a lot of clear ideas; I suppose it is just time when I am sitting there with my notebook and my music for a good chunk of time if I am going down to London or to see my parents in Kent.”

The Grand Tour; Ruth Brill and James Barton as the Italian Stowaways

At 25 Brill sees a few more dancing years ahead of her but accepts dancing is not the longest of careers so is keeping all her options open including more choreography where she says with a laugh “I like being in charge”.

“As a dancer you put your own slight interpretation on it, dance in your own way, but you are being told exactly what to do and when you have to do it; you have to be very good at accepting that. You have to do exactly what you are told and it has been really rather nice to have my own voice. I have really enjoyed being on the other side so perhaps that is an avenue I will really have to start thinking about.”

It all could have ben so different though. Brill never set out to be a ballerina as a tot in a tutu. “My parents sent me off to ballet class because I had so much energy and they needed something for me to do and I just loved it. It didn’t go off to full time dance school until I was 15 or 16.

“It was all after school and at weekends but at 10 or 11 I was winning various things and people were saying ‘she has lots of potential’ but I was not ready to go away from home. It was 11 when I really wanted to go for it but the real crunch time was at 15.

“Did I stay on at school and do my A levels or did I go for it.”

She went for it and the rest is history and the future, for now, is blue.

Roger Clarke


An Evening of Music and Dance at Symphony Hall is on Friday, January 17 with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Paul Murphy.

Rhapsody in Blue with principal pianist Jonathan Higgins will be danced by soloist Samara Downs and first artist William Bracewell with five male and five female dancers in a programme that also includes Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No.5, a pas de deux from David Bintley's Beauty and the Beast, a guest appearance from students of Elmhurst School for Dance, performing a piece especially created for them, Berlioz's Carnival Romain, and the beautiful Diana and Actaeon pas de deux

Rhapsody in Blue

ninety years in the making

THE clarinet glissando which opens George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is among the most famous and familiar openings in music, as well known as Beethoven’s Fifth, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, the theme from Phantom or Jaws, operatic arias, pop classics or ballet favourites.

Yet it was an accident, a joke played on Gershwin in rehearsals by Ross Gorman, the star clarinetist in Paul Whiteman’s orchestra who changed the opening 17 note scale into a glissando. The joke raised more than a laugh, it created a legend. Gershwin heard it, loved it and incorporated it into the premier a few days later.

Whiteman, known as the King of Jazz, was the most popular dance band leader of the 1920s and  had commissioned the piece from Gershwin.

He had held an experimental classical-jazz concert in New York and had decided to go a step further and hold an all-jazz concert and asked Gershwin to contribute a concerto  style piece.

The instantly recognisable opening trill followed by a  glissando

Whiteman was the son of an opera singer mother and a father who was head of schools music in Denver; he played viola in first the Denver Symphony Orchestra then the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra before conducting a US Navy band at the end of the First World War.

Gershwin was also classically trained and had had some success in Tin Pan Alley with his first big hit Swanee in 1919 and had found success with brother Ira on Broadway. George, who died of a brain tumour aged just 38, was only 24 when Whiteman approached him on 1 November 1923  – and he turned him down because he thought there would not be the time to write the piece.

He was finally persuaded though and started work on 7 January, 1924 with the concert set for 12 February Gershwin told biographer Isaac Goldberg that he heard the complete construction for Rhapsody in the rhythm of a the train on a journey to Boston.

Rather than a concerto, with separate movements, Gershwin wrote a rhapsody with one extended movement. It was originally envisaged as a piece for two pianos but was orchestrated by Whiteman’s arranger and pianist Ferde Grofé. The orchestration was completed with just eight days to go and was the penultimate piece of 26 in Whiteman’s concert, An Experiment in Modern Music. Gershwin was on piano and improvised, not writing out the solo piano part until after the concert so we know how Gershwin decided it should sound, but not what it actually sounded like in the Premiere.

Whiteman had moved away from a jazz only concert to one he hoped would make opera and classical music more accessible to the man in the street – the final piece, remember this was modern music, was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, written in 1901. In a pre-show talk Whiteman had said the concert was educational, explaining the different types of music.

Rhapsody established Gershwin as a serious composer not just a tune plugger or popular song writer which was confirmed when Grofé scored the piece again in 1927 for a larger orchestra and then again for a symphony orchestra which placed the piece in both jazz and classical camps.

And the piece still continues to do what Whiteman intended with his concert, helping to introduce a wider public to the world of classical music.

Below are links to analogue recordings, made in 1924 shortly after the first performance,  recorded in New Jersey on Victor Talking Machine discs – electrical recordings using microphones were not to be made until the following year. These were among the last of the analogue recordings with sound directed down a horn to a wax disc.

The most likely venue was Camden where Victor had facilities rather than the popularly stated Menlo Park, which was Thomas Edison’s headquarters.

The recordings with Gershwin on piano and Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, are of an abridged version with the score cut to bring a 15 minute piece down to nine minutes or so to fit on both sides of a Victor disc.

Despite that and the limitations of analogue recording, this is said to be the closest known recording to the original performance at the Aeolian Hall in Manhattan which was an arrangement for Whiteman’s 24 piece orchestra and added violins.

Listen carefully and you can hear the banjos used in the original!

Rather than combine the files we have left them as they were originally, on two discs. The original files, incidentally, are from the excellent https://archive.org site, which is a superb source of old recordings, films and TV progammes. 



We have also included, from the same site, the 1927 electrical recordings orchestrated, like the original, by Ferde Grofé,  but for a larger orchestra.  Grofé was to create many more arrangements culminating in a 1942 version for a full symphony orchestra, which was to become the standard and best-known version.

This version, again abridged to nine minutes or so to fit on two sides also has Gershwin on piano and the original clarinetist Ross Gorman playing the opening and iconic glissando. Although it was the Whiteman orchestra the conductor was Nathaniel Shilkret as Whiteman had walked out after a disagreement with Gershwin.

1927 Recording with Gershwin on Piano 

 Also from Archive.Org

English classical pianist, Jack Gibbons is regarded as one of the best interpreters of Gershwin's music and is renowned for his note-for-note reconstructions of Gershwin’s playing from transcriptions and piano rolls and this is a note-for-note recreation of Gershwin’s 4-handed 1925 piano-roll of Rhapsody in Blue, recorded live in concert in 2007.

For more on Jack Gibbons http://www.jackgibbons.com/

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