Music » Music Features

Jeff Tyzik and the RPO play early-20th-century hits


This weekend's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Pops program follows a playlist ranging from 1900 to 1925 - mostly popular songs from that era, with a few classical works included side-by-side. It is typically imaginative programming from Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik, who will not only conduct, but is also responsible for almost all of the arrangements.

The featured singer, Doug LaBrecque, will be performing everything from "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" to "You Made Me Love You." LaBrecque, who has joined Tyzik for numerous pops and holiday concerts as a singer and as a producer, sums up the RPO conductor as a "musician's musician and a wonderful collaborator."

LaBrecque, like Tyzik, is a talented multitasker. Besides performing with orchestras around the world, including many featured appearances in Rochester, LaBrecque has also produced the RPO's concert productions of "Carousel" and "South Pacific," last week's "Broadway Now"concert, and now, this wide-spanning tribute to early twentieth century American pop music.

"Giants of Music: 1900-1925," devised by LaBrecque and Tyzik, covers a quarter-century in which American popular music changed tremendously - from turn-of-the-century waltzes and ragtime, to the martial airs by George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin that were popular during World War I, to early Tin Pan Alley and the jazz of George Gershwin.

LaBrecque will be joined on this program by another frequent visitor to Rochester, pianist Jon Nakamatsu, who'll play the Tyzik-arranged "Scott Joplin Tribute," as well as the finale from Gershwin's Concerto in F. Nakamatsu's Harmonia Mundi recording of this piece with Tyzik and the RPO became a surprise bestseller for the orchestra. LaBrecque and Nakamatsu are longtime friends and collaborators on all-Gershwin concerts, and the singer hints that he and the pianist may join forces to perform a song on this weekend's concert.

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, classical music also changed tremendously. This period brought us not only Gershwin, but also Debussy, Stravinsky, and other influential composers who don't usually turn up on pops concerts. By the time Gershwin premiered his very jazzy, very symphonic Piano Concerto in F with the New York Philharmonic in 1925, the goal posts of what constituted "classical music" had shifted considerably.

"I think these styles were more separated in the early twentieth century than after 1925," says La Brecque. Irving Berlin wrote in a style influenced by ragtime. "Alexander's Ragtime Band," one of the most recognizable of American songs, dates back as far as 1910. On the other hand, another perennial favorite from 1917, Berlin's "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," lifted its main theme from a classical piano masterpiece, Chopin's "Fantaisie-Impromptu."

Gershwin was accepted into the "serious music" pantheon long ago. But as LaBrecque points out, composers like Debussy and Stravinsky - whose "Clair de lune" and "Firebird," respectively, are on this RPO Pops program - influenced the harmony and color of popular music of the generation that immediately followed, including composers like Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and Richard Rodgers.

This concert also reminds us that by the end of the 1920's, records, radio, and sound movies played a part in disseminating music. Composers like Gershwin were popular radio performers, and popular singers like Al Jolson began to sell records in the millions.

Jolson died in 1950, but he has always retained a presence in American popular music, with his hit songs being taken up by artists like Judy Garland and Bing Crosby. What Doug LaBrecque calls Jolson's "brash, presentational style" is preserved in the first sound film, 1927's "The Jazz Singer" (It's also known for its use of blackface, of course). Jolson trumpeted the first spoken words in the movies: "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"

Brash or not, Jolson's unique style served some indelibly classic songs, including the Gershwins' "Swanee," "Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," "California, Here I Come," and "April Showers." LaBrecque will present a Jolson medley arranged by Tyzik, in what the singer says will be a much different performing style. "I'm not a Jolson imitator, but I do want to give a sense of the songs in my own style," LaBrecque says.

1900 to 1925 is not the only quarter-century being celebrated with this concert. The 2018-19 season brings several celebrations of the indispensable Jeff Tyzik, who has been the RPO's Principal Pops Conductor for 25 years (and within that time, several other pops orchestras across the country). For that quarter century, he has been a constant in Rochester's musical life as a pops and classical conductor, an imaginative programmer, an arranger, and a composer of increasingly ambitious concert works.

Earlier this month, Tyzik lead an RPO subscription concert featuring two of his works, including a violin concerto written for Concertmaster Juliana Athayde. His annual Holiday Pops concert, a big draw for the RPO, will take place next month. The RPO also plans to salute Tyzik on its social media channels, and is asking the public to submit favorite "Jeff Moments" from the last 25 years for a "walk down memory lane."