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Program Notes: Porgy and Bess (January 12, 2024)

Updated: Jan 5


January 12, 2024

Leonard Slatkin, conductor

George Antheil

A Jazz Symphony (1955 version) (First SLSO performance)

Jeff Beal

Body in Motion for violin and orchestra

head above water



Kelly Hall-Tompkins, violin


Duke Ellington

The Three Black Kings (Ballet for Orchestra)

Completed by Mercer Ellington, arranged for orchestra by Luther Henderson

King of the Magi –

King Solomon

Martin Luther King

George Gershwin

Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture

Arranged by Robert Russell Bennett


Program Notes

This concert is the first of a three-program mini-festival that Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin has devised to celebrate the music of Gershwin and his contemporaries of the 1920s and ’30s. It was an era when classical composers were “flirting” with jazz and blues—the music of clubs and speakeasies. The strategy wasn’t new—composers have always found ways of weaving vernacular styles into concert-hall music—but the sounds were and the result could be both shocking and appealing. 

We begin with George Antheil—the self-declared “bad boy of music”—and what Slatkin calls “jazz seen from a classical perspective.” It’s the earliest work on the program (1925), but we hear it in a “tamed” version that Antheil made 30 years later: its spiky qualities smoothed out for 1950s sensibilities. Duke Ellington is represented by a rarely played work, The Three Black Kings, written in the final year of the composer’s life to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and completed by Ellington’s son. Slatkin describes it as a “remarkable synthesis” of Ellington’s ideas.

George Gershwin is represented by his own final major work, the folk-opera Porgy and Bess, in the ever-popular symphonic picture arranged after his death by his friend Robert Russell Bennett. It’s 25 minutes of glorious and moving melody—celebrating the moods and colors of the opera without attempting to tell its story. 

The centerpiece is something brand new: a violin concerto by Jeff Beal for soloist Kelly Hall-Tompkins. You may not recognize the name but, as Slatkin says, “I guarantee most everybody knows what he has done.” Think House of Cards on Netflix, Rome or Carnivale on HBO, and countless other acclaimed scores for the screen, small and large. And as a great jazz trumpeter himself, Beal continues the jazz theme of the program. The music, however, lives up to its name, Body in Motion, with evocations of water, breathing, and running, and a remarkably fluid relationship between soloist and orchestra.

George Antheil

A Jazz Symphony (1955 version)

George Antheil

Born 1900, Trenton, New Jersey

Died 1959, New York Cit

In 1945 George Antheil published a memoir. It’s not altogether reliable, but its title sums up the reputation the composer had cultivated for himself: The Bad Boy of Music. He grew up in New Jersey before heading to Europe and the avant-garde circles of Paris and Berlin in 1922. There he made a name as a provocative pianist–composer finding inspiration in heavy industry and sounds more usually associated with noise than music, as well as the rhythms of Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. By 1936, he’d returned to America, settling in Hollywood where he was in demand as a film composer.

A Jazz Symphony was one of many attempts by composers in the 1920s to blend jazz with the prestigious symphonic tradition. The most famous of these attempts—and one of which the New Jersey native was all too aware—was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Antheil initially planned his Jazz Symphony for Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, the group that introduced Rhapsody in Blue. What’s more, Antheil predicted that the Jazz Symphony would “put Gershwin in the shade.” That forecast missed the mark, but the one-movement, highly episodic Jazz Symphony tackles the intersection of popular and highbrow more boldly than Gershwin’s better-known work, audaciously interweaving divergent sounds and styles. 

The work begins with a lilting Mariachi-flavored theme, soon followed by a piano solo that fuses ragtime with strident tone clusters. Throughout, banjos—commonly used at the time to signify African American music—participate in rhythmically complex and intense passages that could appear in the music of Igor Stravinsky. Toward the end of the piece, an improvisatory passage for solo trumpet transitions into a sugary waltz heard in the piano before being repeated and amplified by the orchestra. Meanwhile, in several places, wind instruments riff comedically on the signature opening clarinet trill and wail of Gershwin’s Rhapsody.

A Jazz Symphony was completed in 1925 and first performed in 1927 by blues pioneer W.C. Handy’s orchestra of African American musicians with the composer at the piano. The premiere took place in a concert that also featured Antheil’s better-known Ballet Mécanique. (The latter composition, which included airplane propellers and a siren, had sparked riots at its own premiere the year before in Paris, where Antheil was living at the time.) 

Almost 30 years later, in 1955, Antheil shortened and tamed the Jazz Symphony, but continued to stake a place for it in music history. Noting that it appeared “only slightly” after Rhapsody in Blue, he called the Jazz Symphony “one of the very first symphonic expressions which attempted to synthesize American jazz as a legitimate symphonic expression.” We perform the revised version this concert.

Adapted from a note by Matthew Mugmon © 2013 First published by the American Symphony Orchestra 

First Performance: April 10, 1927, by the W.C. Handy Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Allie Ross conducting, with the composer as piano soloist

First SLSO Performance: This concerts

Instrumentation: flute (doubling piccolo), 3 clarinets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, piano, 3 violins, viola, cello, double bass

Approximate duration: 8 minutes

Jeff Beal

Body in Motion

Jeff Beal

Born 1963, Hayward, California

Jeff Beal is a genre-defying composer: his film scores have received critical acclaim, while he remains a respected composer in the concert, theater, and dance worlds. You may have heard his work in House of Cards (Netflix) or the HBO series Carnivale and Rome. He has also written scores for the documentaries Blackfish and Queen of Versailles, and dramas Pollock and Appaloosa. House of Cards received four Emmy nominations, and won for Outstanding Score, bringing his Emmy Award tally to 15 nominations and four statues. 

His orchestral works have been performed by the St. Louis, Rochester, Pacific, Munich, and Detroit symphony orchestras. Commissions include works for the Metropole Orchestra, the Ying Quartet, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Henry Mancini Institute, Prism Brass Quintet, Smuin Ballet, and Grammy winner Jason Vieaux. His first choral commission, The Salvage Men, was written for the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Eric Whitacre Singers. His music for the theater includes the 2015 World Science Festival production of Light Falls

The composer writes…

The first image that came to me when developing the materials for this new violin concerto was one of water. I love the way water presents a visual tension between the hypnotic, peaceful, and—in the case of a windy lake or sea—a sense of constant, fluid motion. I began to think of both the orchestra and soloist as active natural forces. 

Often in a concerto the orchestra is conceived in a more static fashion making musical “room” for the soloist. Wanting to upend this norm, I strove to create a sense of constant motion in the first movement from both partners. The title of the first movement, “head above water,” was another early visual image—I pictured a swimmer constantly bobbing in a turbulent sea, trying to catch breaths and survive, and this swimmer became a metaphor for the soloist. 

My feelings about Kelly Hall-Tompkin’s artistry were no doubt part of this inspiration. She is an intense, passionate performer, who seems to never wish to sit still artistically, nor shy away from intense effort. I feel most true artists are haunted by a sense of unrest and, in a way, unrest is indicative of all lives lived with meaning. 

In the same way, the two following movements, “breathing” and “running”, fill out this picture of life forces. “Breathing” feels like the earth; a plant breaking through the soil to find sun, or a baby’s first precious breaths, or a bird hatching from the egg. Life moving slowly but deliberately, with the absolute need of breath for sustenance. 

I began my musical life as a jazz trumpet player, and a sense of improvisation and dance is a part of much that I compose. “Running” is one part joyful romp, and another part a more desperate act—perhaps pursuit of prey, or escape from a predator. Here the violin is a jazz soloist, soaring in the sky and skating across of bed of syncopations and counter rhythms from the orchestra. 

I dedicate this work to both Kelly Hall-Tompkins and my good friend and frequent collaborator Leonard Slatkin. 

First Performance: This concert

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (2nd doubling bass flute), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

Approximate duration: 20 minutes

Duke Ellington

The Three Black Kings

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington

Born 1899, Washington, DC

Died 1974, New York City

By the time Duke Ellington was 75 years old, he was perhaps the most lauded composer not only of the 20th century, but possibly of any century. He had received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and France’s Legion of Honor, celebrated a birthday at the White House, been honored on postage stamps in four countries, and had heard himself called “America’s greatest composer.” The duality of his career as a band leader and composer is perhaps the singular point that pushed him to a level of excellence we may never see in our arts again. He composed at least 2,000 works and did so while giving nearly 20,000 performances in the United States, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia—an average of 400 a year for the span of his 50-year career. 

He composed perhaps the most diverse body of work in history—dance pieces, concertos, suites, movie soundtracks, music to accompany Shakespeare’s plays, television show themes, ballets, and Broadway shows. Ellington wrote music for a queen, for lightning bugs, and for paintings by Degas. He composed serious extended symphonies, pieces for romantic evenings under Paris skies, and sacred music for cathedrals. If there was a human experience, Duke Ellington set it to rhythm and tune. 

Three Black Kings was Duke Ellington’s final composition. While hospitalized at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital during the spring of 1974, he worked on this nearly 20-minute piece. He died before it was completed. Following his tradition of writing sweeping musical narratives, Three Black Kings, according to Ellington’s son Mercer, was written as a musical eulogy to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The work was finished by Mercer and orchestrated by Luther Henderson for a tribute concert in 1976. It became part of the regular repertoire of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company for their 1976/77 season. 

The first section, King of the Magi—Ellington’s tonal version of “primitive”—represents Balthazar, the Black king of the Magi. Repetitive rhythmic figures are reminiscent of his previous work, Bonga from Afro Bossa.

It segues into the second section, King Solomon, which has overtones of film music. Performed at a slower tempo, it is filled with sweeping string passages and harp with an evocative and sultry melody. There are moments that are reminiscent of George Gershwin’s American in Paris. The melody is passed through various voices, one of Ellington’s favorite devices. 

The final section, Martin Luther King, is marked “Slow Gospel, 4 beat,” but each beat divides into three, a meter Ellington used infrequently. The memorable melody, originally conceived for the soprano saxophone, is a tribute to the lyric heart of the Ellington Orchestra, Johnny Hodges. It is fitting that Ellington’s last composition feature such a finale. The New York Times noted at the premiere “…with its crescendo of gospel rhythms and its expressionist symbols of marches and martyrdom…this moves the spectator.”

Adapted from program notes by Todd Stoll © 2023

First published by the American Symphony Orchestra 

First Performance: 1976, at the Artpark Theater, Buffalo, New York 

First SLSO Performance: December 23, 1995, Dello Thedford conducting 

Most Recent SLSO performance: February 1, 2001, Hans Vonk conducting 

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings 

Approximate duration: 18 minutes

Duke Ellington

Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture

George Gershwin

Born 1898, Brooklyn, New York

Died 1937, Los Angeles

George Gershwin was an insomniac. Over a single night in 1926, he read a short novel called Porgy by a Southern writer from Charleston, South Carolina, DuBose Heyward. The next morning, Gershwin wrote to DuBose and his writer-dramatist wife Dorothy suggesting they turn it into a “folk-opera.”

It would be almost a decade before their collaboration would see the light of day. Gershwin, at 28 already the darling of Broadway, was over-committed to tours, recordings, and other shows and nervous about his lack of classical credentials. By 1934, he felt himself ready and spent six weeks with the Heywards in the sleepy “City of Churches” called Charleston.

They fleshed out Heyward’s tale of a dismally poor Black man, a beggar forced by disability to trundle around the cobblestone streets in a goat-drawn cart. Based on the real-life saga of one Sammy Smalls, Porgy relates the story of “that old wreck,” as Heyward called him, and a sometime cocaine addict, Bess. It is set in a Black communal tenement, Catfish Row [89 Church Street], a short distance from the fishing wharves of Charleston, “an ancient and beautiful city that time had forgotten before it destroyed.”

George drafted his wordsmith brother Ira to help with the libretto, but all the songs and most of the orchestrations were his own. He auditioned more than 100 applicants for the lead role of Porgy, finally selecting an unknown singing teacher from Washington, DC, Todd Duncan (1926–1998). For the role of Bess, he chose a young Juilliard graduate, Anne Brown (1912–2009). Porgy and Bess opened in Boston on September 30, 1935 and moved to Broadway a few days later. 

Porgy and Bess ran for 124 performances on Broadway, but it was still far from a commercial success, losing the Heywards and Gershwins more than $70,000, a very tidy sum in those days. Still, George saw commercial potential in creating a concert suite, Catfish Row, from the music, although it never enjoyed the success of the show.

On July 11, 1937 Gershwin died in Hollywood of a brain tumor, barely three months shy of his 39th birthday. Many Americans refused to believe the news. George died while working with Ira on a third Hollywood movie, The Goldwyn Follies. He had planned many more projects, including a second full-length opera. “I want another Black opera,” he wrote to the Heywards, “possibly even more political than Porgy.”

Porgy—Gershwin’s last major work—lived beyond its composer. Soon after his death, conductors of the major American orchestras began casting around for ways to bring Porgy into the concert hall. Fritz Reiner, conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Gershwin’s close friend Robert Russell Bennett to produce a 25-minute concert suite, with banjo and saxophones providing a dash of Southern “fixin’s” to the customary orchestral recipe, while dispensing with Gershwin’s own instrument, the piano. Reiner premiered the work in 1943 with what he whimsically called his “All-Girl Orchestra,” so named because by then the Pittsburgh Symphony numbered over 40 women in its wartime ranks, more than any other major American orchestra. Bennett’s suite soon took off, with a roster of concert performances and recordings that long eclipsed the opera itself.

In a career spanning more than five decades, Robert Russell Bennett arranged more than 300 Broadway shows. In one season alone, he was responsible for 22 musical comedy scores. He orchestrated seven of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, his arrangements for the 1955 film version of Oklahoma! earning him an Academy Award. By the late 1920s, Bennett had based himself in London and Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger. That great teacher of young American composition hopefuls from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass declared Bennett “a true artist” who could readily maintain his artistic ideals while supporting his family with his work for the stage and screen. Between commercial assignments, the prolific composer completed nearly 200 original works—symphonies, operas, chamber music, choral and vocal pieces, and more than two dozen pieces for wind band. But none of these was to rival the work which was only partly his, this suite of music from the opera of another composer.

Abridged from a note by Vincent Plush © 2003

The Porgy and Bess Story

The action of the opera takes place around 1930 in “Catfish Row,” a Black tenement near the wharves of Charleston, South Carolina. Early on we hear Clara singing her baby to sleep with the opera’s most famous aria, “Summertime” and we’re introduced to her fisherman husband Jake, dockhand Crown, and his girlfriend Bess. Crown kills a man and flees, abandoning Bess. Sporting Life, a drug dealer, sells Bess “happy dust” and tries to persuade her to go to New York with him. While the community shuns Bess, Porgy shows compassion and takes her in. 

Even though Porgy in his goat cart is unable to attend the church picnic on Kittiwah Island, he remains high spirited (I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’); Bess is reluctant to leave him, but he urges her to go (Bess, You is My Woman). At the picnic, Sporting Life cynically declares “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; Crown drags Bess away despite her protests. On finally returning to Catfish Row, she begs Porgy to protect her, and when Crown arrives to claim Bess, Porgy kills him. The police take Porgy away to identify the body, but he refuses to do so. After his release, he finds Bess gone, seduced by Sporting Life’s talk of New York (There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York) and his dope. Undaunted, Porgy is determined to follow her (O Lawd, I’m On My Way).

A Symphonic Synopsis

This single-movement concert suite doesn’t follow the plot of the opera—it’s a colorful picture rather than a dramatic narrative. Reiner’s brief to Bennett included the excerpts he wished to highlight as well as their sequence (today’s performance begins at Opening Act I): 

Opening Act I


I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’

Storm Music

Bess, You is My Woman

The Picnic Party

There’s a Boat that’s Leavin’ Soon for New York

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Finale (Oh Lawd, I’m On My Way)

Bennett, meanwhile, remained “completely loyal” to Gershwin’s harmonic and orchestral intentions, being careful to do what he knew—after many years of association—Gershwin would want in a symphonic version of his music. 

First Performance: February 5, 1943, by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner conducting

First SLSO Performance: December 30, 1944, Vladimir Golschmann conducting 

Most Recent SLSO performance: November 13, 2016, Leonard Slatkin conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, banjo, strings 

Approximate duration: 19 minutes

Leonard Slatkin

Leonard Slatkin


In addition to his role as Conductor Laureate of the SLSO, Leonard Slatkin is Music Director Laureate of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Honorary Musical Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria in Spain. He maintains a rigorous schedule of guest conducting throughout the world and is active as a composer, author, and educator.

He has received six Grammy awards and 35 nominations. His latest recordings are Jeff Beal’s The Paper Lined Shack, and Slatkin Conducts Slatkin, a compilation of pieces written by generations of his musical family, including three of his own compositions. For Naxos he has also recorded works by Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Berlioz (with the Orchestre National de Lyon); as well as Copland, Rachmaninoff, Borzova, McTee, John Williams, and the complete symphonies of Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky (with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra).

In addition to his appearances as a titled conductor, his engagements include concerts for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, NDR Radiophilharmonie in Hanover, NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, Spokane Symphony Orchestra, Yale Symphony Orchestra, Manhattan School of Music Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin, Beethoven Festival in Warsaw, Sacramento Philharmonic, Nashville Symphony, and Rhode Island Philharmonic.

A recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Arts, he also holds the rank of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor. He has received the Prix Charbonnier from the Federation of Alliances Françaises, Austria’s Decoration of Honor in Silver, the League of American Orchestras Gold Baton Award, and the 2013 ASCAP Deems Taylor Special Recognition Award for his debut book, Conducting Business. A second volume, Leading Tones: Reflections on Music, Musicians, and the Music Industry, was published in 2017, and his latest book, Classical Crossroads: The Path Forward for Music in the 21st Century was released in 2021.

Leonard Slatkin has conducted virtually all the leading orchestras in the world. As Music Director, he has held posts in New Orleans, St. Louis (1979–1996), London (BBC Symphony Orchestra), Detroit, Lyon, and Washington, DC. He has also served as Principal Guest Conductor in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cleveland.

Kelly Hall-Tompkins

Kelly Hall-Tompkins


Kelly Hall-Tompkins is a violinist and entrepreneur who has been acclaimed by The New York Times as a “versatile violinist who makes the music come alive” and praised for her “tonal mastery” (BBC Music Magazine). A winner of a Naumburg International Violin Competition Honorarium Prize, she has been featured in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and in 2017 was named “New Yorker of the Year” by The New York Times. Her groundbreaking Imagination Project has received more than a million views on YouTube to date.

She was first American artist to perform in China after the pandemic, appearing as a soloist with the Shanghai Symphony. She has previously appeared as co-soloist at Carnegie Hall with Glenn Dicterow and conductor Leonard Slatkin, in London at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, as the inaugural Artist in Residence with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and with the Baltimore, Dallas, Jacksonville, Oakland, and Greensboro symphony orchestras. She has also given recitals at the Lincoln Center and in Paris, New York, Toronto, Washington, and Chicago; and appeared in the Tanglewood, Brevard, Ravinia, Santa Fe, and Gateways festivals, as well as in France, Germany, and Italy. 

At home with genres beyond classical music, she was the first soloist to perform the Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto after the original dedicatee, and she toured for five years with American Roots-style violinist–composer Mark O’Connor. In 2016 she was the “Fiddler” violin soloist in the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof. Inspired by this experience, she commissioned and developed a solo album of all-new arrangements, The Fiddler Expanding Tradition, which was featured in the 2019 documentary on the 55-year history of the musical, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles. As founder of Music Kitchen – Food for the Soul, she is also a pioneer of social justice in classical music—presenting top artists in more than a hundred concerts in homeless shelters coast to coast, from New York to Los Angeles, as well as internationally in Paris, and commissioning a song cycle, Forgotten Voices.

In 2024, together with Leonard Slatkin and the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria, she will perform the European premiere and record Body in Motion.

Peter Henderson

Peter Henderson


A versatile pianist, Peter Henderson is active as a performer in solo, chamber, and orchestral settings. Henderson is currently Associate Professor of Music and Artist-in-Residence at Maryville University, where he has served on the faculty since 2005. In 2015, Henderson was appointed Principal Keyboardist of the Sun Valley Music Festival Orchestra. Beginning in the 2023/2024 season, Henderson will serve as Principal Keyboardist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

During January and February 2016, Henderson was the piano soloist in the SLSO’s California tour performances of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars…) . Critics described him as a “powerhouse soloist” (San Francisco Chronicle) and praised his Messiaen playing for its “intense focus and thrilling vibrancy” (San Jose Mercury News). His most recent solo appearances with the SLSO, in March 2023, featured performances of Joseph Haydn’s Keyboard Concerto No. 11. In addition to his regular ensemble performances with the SLSO, Henderson often delivers pre-concert lectures, introducing SLSO subscription concert programs from Powell Hall’s stage.

Henderson’s discography includes collaborations with violinist David Halen, flutist Mark Sparks, bass trombonist Gerry Pagano, violist Jonathan Vinocour, and soprano Marlissa Hudson. His most recent solo album is A Celebration of African Composers for Piano (AMP AGCD 2706, released 2017). In addition to his performing and teaching activities, Henderson occasionally composes music and works as a recording producer. His composition for trombone and piano entitled Rückblick (Looking Back) appears on Gerry Pagano’s album Solitude, released December 2018.

Henderson holds a Doctor of Music degree from Indiana University, Bloomington. He and his wife Kristin Ahlstrom, the SLSO’s Associate Principal Second Violinist, live in St. Louis with their lively, sweet beagle/terrier-mix, Zinni.


Program Notes are sponsored by Washington University Physicians.

٢ تعليقان

٠٦ يناير

^^^^^^^And when SLSO reprints 20 year old program notes, no one—even orchestra members—benefits from current research. Fritz Reiner also designed the picture's whole form, practically measure for measure.


٠٤ يناير

The P&B "Symphonic PIcture" listeners might enjoy knowing more about how Fritz Reiner figures into all this—a 1920s champion of Gershwin who'd brought him in to solo with the Cincinnati Symphony, and who was Gershwin's first choice (though unavailable) to conduct "Porgy and Bess." More importantly, "today's performance begins at Opening Act 1" is a rather indirect way to say "the SLSO audience isn't getting the whole piece—we're lopping off the first five minutes."

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