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.

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