Archive | August, 2013

Jack Gibbons Gershwin in Oxford

23 Aug

Wednesday 21st August 2013 at 8pm and the audience at the Holywell Music Rooms in Oxford are transported back in time and space to a party in New York, circa 1930. Courtesy of the affable, erudite and astonishingly talented Jack Gibbons, one of the world’s leading champions of Gershwin’s virtuoso piano arrangements. A key figure in one of the great cultural stirrings of modern times, Gershwin was possessed of a pianistic genius that, during his short life, was devoted to creating a uniquely American style of music, merging Afro-American rhythms, styles and motifs with the classical genre.
Jack Gibbons strode onto stage in the rather intimate surroundings of this famous venue, sat down immediately after the applause and launched straight into his first frenetic number, falling prey to none of the OCD rituals of seat twiddling, looking up and down for inspiration or other nervous habits of many concert pianists.

Between each warmly received piece he drew on his deep treasury of stories gathered during long research, to set a stage on which Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and others of that inspired ‘charmed circle’ played out their ground-breaking roles.Gibbons took us with him to Tin Pan Alley, concert venues in New York and elsewhere, and intimate parties where Gershwin would play for hours, improvising on his great compositions in ways that are mostly lost to history but in certain instances, and through painstaking research and reconstruction, have been realised and recorded by Gibbons for posterity.

During the evening he covered many of the Gershwin classics: I Got Rhythm, The Man I Love and of course Rhapsody in Blue. An American in Paris, Summertime (delivered most ravishingly) and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off also featured.

Throughout, we couldn’t help but thrill to the fantastic, almost Beethoven-like energy and Mozart-like variety of ornamentations that Gershwin used. No mean feat either, to present this music flawlessly (though very occasionally off beat) by the performer who maintains a prodigious schedule of summer concerts featuring Chopin and Alkan as well as Gershwin.

I learned that Gershwin, his life cut one year shorter than that of Chopin but troubled by less suffering, was truly a composer of genius. Jack dwelled at one point on the fact that composers often change their minds about tempo, illustrating with a phrase from Chopin’s Etude Op 10 no. 3, nowadays played Andante or Lento (and to great effect) but originally inscribed Vivace by the composer. Certainly Gershwin played at high speed a lot of the time, perhaps following the spirit of the American age.

The final standing ovation for Gibbons was unanimous, genuine and warmly deserved. Highly recommended.

London Piano Meet Aug 10th 2013

11 Aug

At 12 midday this Saturday a small group of amateur pianists gathered outside Peregrine’s Pianos in London’s Grays Inn Road. They had arrived for the August session of the London Piano Meetup Group organised by Lorraine Liyanage and Fran Wilson-she of Cross-Eyed Pianist blogging fame.

At the appointed hour the doors opened and performers and listeners entered a downstairs rehearsal room furnished in one corner with an intriguing and attractive harpsichord and under the barred window, a small but rather magnificent Schimmel grand, the instrument upon which we would be playing.

I have written before about nerves and the manifold forms they may take. One manifestation is a heightened state of awareness of one’s mental processes. Thoughts become sharper and one’s inner conversation bubbles to the surface. You can hear yourself meditating on the likelihood of fluffing it, negative countered by positive affirmative. If the negative side reasserts itself and wins, the resulting short-circuit increases fear because weakness begets fear. Weird cogitations. My own defence against all this is just to accept the process, try to remain aloof from it and practice long and hard to gain confidence. In the end it is all about hard work: intelligent, efficient practice yes, but nonetheless work.

In Fran’s absence our mistress of ceremonies was Lorraine, who with charm and friendliness encouraged our first performer to step up. She played a series of Stephen Hough’s adaptations of something by Mozart. Attractive and beautifully played, the adaptation seeming to me to consist mostly of augmenting and diminishing the chords à la Nelson Riddle.

Next up was myself with a kind of car-crash rendering of the Capriccio from Bach’s Partita No 2. One thing I notice in performance to an audience as against practicing alone, is the sheer physical demand of playing a fast piece with repeats, when one is emotionally frazzled. It requires considerably bodily and mental fitness. These experiences are part of what makes the Meetups so valuable to amateurs.

Other performances included a ravishing Szymanowski Etude, No 3 I believe, that had real depth and meaning; a Spanish Dance of Granados executed with great polish and not a little panache, by José, and some delightfully crafted Grade 5 pieces.

Lorraine treated us to something by Bach, I can’t remember what but it was fiendishly dense and complex. I loved it and she conquered it, demonstrating in so doing her high level of pianistic accomplishment.

So that was it. I wanted to play again, but the hour was gone and we repaired to a nearby pub for socialising. I had to dash soon afterward to keep my appointment with a Yamaha grand at Chappell (annoyingly now referred to as ‘Yamaha Music London’-almost as naked a corporate name-grab as can be found), before heading back to the Isle of Wight infused with a renewed determination to improve my performance skills.

The highlights for me were the Szymanowski Etude and Lorraine’s Bach, followed by an interesting conversation with José about the Middle Eastern influences in Spanish music and the great age of Muslim/Christian cultural efflorescence in Andalusia and elsewhere.

Finally can I say that it was a pleasure and privilege for which I am profoundly grateful, to be able to attend these sessions and perform. Thank you Lorraine and Fran.