"Grand Canyon Suite" A Mesmerizing Concert
One hundred years ago a young Los Angeles musician drove across the Arizona desert, multiple gas cans strapped to his jeep, to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon. Ferde Grofe was so bowled over by the mysterious experience, he vowed to translate it for others.
"I was enthralled in the silence, you know, because as it got lighter and brighter then you could hear the birds chirping and nature coming to life," said Grofe in an interview later in life. "All of a sudden, bingo! There it was, the sun. I couldn't hardly describe it in words because words would be inadequate."
A decade later Grofe sat down at his piano and composed five movements that he christened "Grand Canyon Suite." It became his most famous work. Combining classical and jazz musical forms, Grofe's evocative compositions portrayed scenes typical of the Grand Canyon: "Sunrise," "Painted Desert," "On the Trail," "Sunset" and "Cloudburst."
Maestro Aaron Collins leads the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra in a multi-media concert event "Grand Canyon Suite: Seeing is Believing" to be performed at the Scott Center for Performing Arts September 24 and the Vero Beach High School Performing Arts Center on September 25. Panoramic screens will be suspended above the orchestra for the audience to see stunning HD footage of the Grand Canyon provided by National Geographic.
Capturing changing seasons as well as the panoramic sunrises and sunsets, the film is a visual treat. It has been called a symphonic poem, one that conveys a literary story evoking the natural sounds Grofe heard on his visit. He orchestrated the woodwinds to sound like birds and the trumpets to mimic crickets.
The best known of the movements is "On the Trail." The loping gait of the music describes the ride down to the bottom of the canyon on the back of a mule. Along the journey listeners hear its brays and Grofe cleverly using coconut shells to make the sound of hoofbeats as the burro navigates the rocky trail. The tobacco company Philip Morris used the “On the Trail” movement as its musical signature in radio and television programs it sponsored beginning in 1933.
For Collins the performance is a perfect blend for the senses.
"Our goal is always to keep the focus on the music," Collins says. "But, the Grand Canyon Suite is the perfect work to pair with the footage from National Geographic. It's going to create a really amazing experience for concertgoers. And with Brian Gatchell on piano and timpanist Brian Radock, we have a program you will long remember."
Grofe gained experience working with some of the premier composers of American music in the 1920s, including George Gershwin. Another one of the program's highlights is "Rhapsody in Blue" performed by SCSO pianist Brian Gatchell. When Grofé became the arranger for Paul Whiteman’s jazz orchestra in the 1930s he took Gershwin’s two piano compositions and wrote them for all the players of the orchestra. The piece is brimming with youthful energy, graceful melodies and captivating rhythms. Gatchell's recording of the original version of "Rhapsody in Blue" (with a jazz band) was one of the first released since Gershwin himself recorded it in the late 1920s.
Rounding out the SCSO's concert offerings, Michael Daugherty's concerto "Raise the Roof " is performed by timpanist Brian Radock. A three-time Grammy winner, Daugherty brought the timpani into the forefront giving the musician the rare opportunity to play long expressive melodies. Inspired by the contributions of grand architectural wonders such as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Empire State Building in New York City, the piece contains music reflections ranging from Gregorian chants to rock to Latin rhythms.