In June 1995, four years before the orchestra elected him its new chief conductor in succession to Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle conducted his first Waldbühne concert, the orchestra’s traditional summer event. In a sold-out concert he presented an American Night made up of works by Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin, two composers with whom Rattle has long been associated.
Rattle had only just turned twenty-one when he conducted two acclaimed concert performances of Porgy and Bess in London in 1976. Ten years later he was again in charge of a series of performances, this time at the Glyndebourne Festival – the first time that Gershwin’s work had been staged there. Among the soloists were Willard White, Cynthia Haymon and Damon Evans, all three of whom achieved their international breakthrough with their appearances in Gershwin’s “folk opera”. At the Waldbühne concert, too, they helped to create the right atmosphere for an opera set in the Southern States.
Before this, the orchestra had briefly shrunk in size to the dimensions of a jazz combo in order to do justice to another Gershwin classic, the evergreen Rhapsody in Blue. The pianist was another old acquaintance of Rattle, Wayne Marshall, who had played the role of the jazz pianist Jasbo Brown at Glyndebourne. In Berlin he “conjured up the music of this popular piece with altogether exceptional agility,” noted the Berliner Zeitung. “The audience acclaimed the pianist on the completion of his task.”
For Leonard Bernstein, Gershwin’s music was the very embodiment of all that is American: “I don’t think there is anyone in the civilized world who wouldn’t know right away that that music is American music. […] It sounds American, it smells American – makes up feel American when you hear it.” Exactly the same can also be said of the music of the multitalented Bernstein, as the orchestra demonstrated with its performances of his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs and his infectiously brilliant overture to Candide. The audience’s enthusiasm was rewarded with two encores in the form of two Gershwin songs before the evening ended on a traditional note with Paul Lincke’s Berliner Luft.