Michael Feinstein and the Pasadena Pops performed the concert premiere of Dimitri Tiomkin’s “Mars Ballet” on August 19 at an evening concert in the Pops summer venue. The “Gershwin & Friends” concert at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Arcadia featured a “stylish performance by the Pops” of the “Mars Ballet” from The March of Time. Feinstein, who discovered a vintage recording of the Mars Ballet, had good cause to include Tiomkin on the concert. Tiomkin and Gershwin were friends and musical colleagues. Tiomkin played one of two pianos for performances of the Rhapsody in Blue ballet at the Hippodrome in 1926, and he was at the piano for the European premiere of Gershwin’s Concerto in F in 1928. The musical influence of Gershwin is evident in the “Mars Ballet,” particularly in the jazzy middle section of the work.
After the concert, to orchestrator Patrick Russ, who helped prepare the music for this performance, Feinstein wrote, “the orchestra had genuine enthusiasm for the Ballet. It was a joy to be able to bring it back to life and certainly the audience reacted with adulation. I do want to explore more Tiomkin for future concerts.”
Writing from London to Feinstein prior to the concert, Olivia Tiomkin Douglas said of the “Mars Ballet,” “I am delighted that you will lead the first performance of this music in nearly a century. I only wish that I could join you in person on this wonderful occasion.” At the time of the concert Patrick Russ was in Europe so he sent composer Dimitri Smith and his wife Molly in his place to sit at a table with actor George Hamilton and other special guests.
Dimitri reports that they enjoyed the concert. The music choices and performances were great and the more classical and dramatic Tiomkin piece went over well with the audience. “When the main theme returns triumphantly near the end it felt great, and the work has an exciting and satisfying finish.” Dimitri and Molly met Michael who talked enthusiastically about the recording techniques used for The March of Time, at the dawn of the sound era.
The “Mars Ballet” was influential in Tiomkin’s transition from composing ballet music to writing for films. In his autobiography Tiomkin tells the story.
I had just finished the Mars Ballet, my latest composition, the latest of dozens. I had been writing pieces for piano, for voice, for orchestra, some serious, some popular, some jazzy, and had tried to get them published. It was no use; publishers weren’t interested. I could play some of it in my recitals, and I wrote numbers for the Albertina Rasch Dancers—after all, if you can’t make a sale to your wife, all is hopeless. The rest of my compositions piled up and filled trunks. Later I dug into them, bringing out old music I could use in motion picture scores.
The “Mars Ballet” was filmed at MGM in 1929 for a ballet sequence in The March of Time, an extravagant musical revue that went unfinished and was shelved in 1930. (Probably due to the box office failure of The King of Jazz, Universal’s music revue with bandleader Paul Whitman, that same year.)
Composer Gustav Holst opened The Planets, his popular seven-movement orchestral suite, with “Mars, the Bringer of War,” written in 1914. The title refers to both the planet and to the mythological Roman god of war.
Tiomkin wrote of his work, “The Mars Ballet was not about the god of war but about the planet. The music was intended to give an impression of space.”
REVIEW: “Feinstein, Pasadena Pops swing with Gershwin at the Arboretum,” by Robert D. Thomas, Music Critic, Southern California News Group, Posted on August 21, 2017
“Please Don’t Hate Me,” Dimitri Tiomkin and Prosper Buranelli. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1959.