Jack Gibbons

Astounding virtuoso pianist specialising in Chopin, Gershwin & Alkan. Daily Info recommends highly!
Usually a summer series at the Holywell Music Room. More info: www.jackgibbons.com.

June 1, 2009
Jack Gibbons plays Gershwin
If you haven't heard Jack Gibbons play Gershwin, you really should*. He's amazing. Three reasons: firstly, the electrifying vivacity and bluesy richness of the music, from famous show-stoppers of the early 20th century (Let's Call the Whole Thing Off, The Man I Love*, Someone to Watch Over Me) to the peacock colours of Porgy and Bess and Rhapsody In Blue. Some of the best music of the 20th century.

Secondly, most of the pieces are breath-takingly detailed reconstructions by Jack Gibbons of Gershwin's own stunning virtuoso improvisations and arrangements (I've compared the pure, delightful Gibbons recordings to some of the scratchy originals, and it really is note-for-note).

Thirdly, there's the sheer charm of the man. He gives extraordinary renditions of dazzling music, using all forty of his hands to the full, and intersperses each piece with anecdotes, trivia and even little demonstrations of how the music is constructed. This last habit in particular is a very delightful one: Gershwin used to pile up rhythm upon rhythm and chord upon chord with casual brilliance, and Gibbons manages to make you feel you understand what's going on. It adds an enormous amount to the experience of the music. He's friendly and diffident and interesting and makes the evening feel more like a party than a concert.

Jack Gibbons says himself: "When I first started playing Gershwin, the hardest thing was learning how to stay on the piano stool." This is still occasionally a difficulty, so dynamic are the rhythms employed. Yet the quieter pieces are played with immense sensitivity and skill.

Having been internationally celebrated for his Gershwin performances for so many years, there's occasionally now a slight weariness in his aspect when it comes to the encores. He does play Beethoven, Chopin, Bach, Alkan, Lizst and many others, and very well, but I'm afraid he's so superlatively and uniquely marvellous at Gershwin he's always going to be doomed to be most celebrated for that. Sorry, but there it is. If you don't already know these concerts, do go. You'll have a marvellous evening.

*If you have heard him, you've probably already booked for the next show.
*although apparently, when first performed, this now famous song flopped so badly that it was dropped from its mid-show spot.
It is possible that there are a few remaining citizens of Oxford who have never been to hear Jack Gibbons play Gershwin. It is more understandable, perhaps, if one has never heard him play Bach. This was my own situation until last week, so I set out to remedy it. The first half of the programme consisted of the Goldberg Variations, and I was delighted to find that, as with his Gershwin recitals, Jack Gibbons continued in his mission to educate his listeners in the music and what to listen for. Even the programme notes, as my companion pointed out, were the most entertaining biography of Bach he had ever read – a Bach of fiery temper, in constant conflict with the authorities, whose house ‘was like a beehive and constantly full of life’, as attested by his son. Even better however, was Jack Gibbons’ explanation before he played the Variations of why they were written (to be played by the harpsichordist Goldberg for a former Russian Ambassador during attacks of insomnia), and how they are constructed.

One thing that came across – both in the talk and in the performance – was Gibbons’ enthusiasm for Bach, and a kind of fellow feeling with a composer and innovator who adored music as Gibbons himself clearly does. The performance was certainly innovative. There were no repeats, which added to the strong sense of what Gibbons had described as the ‘constant forward movement’. For some of us it was almost excessively virtuoso, and if I were the sleepless ambassador, I have to say I would prefer the quieter, more reflective renditions with which I am more familiar – but we agreed that we had had a new experience of the music, and caught harmonies we had previously missed. Having said that, in some of the slower variations there were exquisite moments.

In the second half, along with Schubert, Brahms and Alkan, we heard some of Jack Gibbons’ own compositions – another first for me. I had no idea what to expect, and was completely enchanted: the pieces were original and at the same time engaging, with some stunningly beautiful harmonic sequences. The first on the programme, Music Box, can be heard on his website at www.jackgibbons.com/musicbox.htm. The funny thing is that normally I detest musical boxes, but I really loved this piece and have listened to it seven times so far this evening. (On the website there is also footage of Jack Gibbons and of Gershwin playing Gershwin – as well as x-ray pictures of Gibbons’ left arm after his 2001 car crash).

There are three more concerts in what is Jack Gibbons’ twentieth Summer Piano Series in Oxford: The Life of Chopin, Part 3, on Sunday 19th (at which he promises to tell what really happened in the end between Chopin and Georges Sand); Crazy for Gershwin on Wednesday 22nd; and Farewell Piano Party on Wednesday 29th: all at 8 p.m. in the Holywell. If you are going for the first time, you will discover that being a Jack Gibbons fan is for many people a way of life. But whether or not you get hooked, I guarantee a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Jack Gibbons has been a regular performer at the Holywell Music Room for many years now. It is great to see him return for another season – his 20th - to share with us once again his passion for the great music of Frédéric Chopin.

Jack has an incredible enthusiasm for Chopin and he has accumulated a great deal of knowledge. He has a lovable and inimitable style of delivery; we are always treated not only to some seriously accomplished playing but also to some informative pieces of interleaving commentary, and sometimes even demonstration, which add greatly to the strength of the connection that the audience feels it has with both composer and performer. The Holywell was packed, as it usually is for Jack Gibbons. On this occasion a number of the light bulbs in the Music Room had frung and the fact that the concert took place in the half-dark served only to intensify the intimate and conversational atmosphere that Jack manages so well to create. This evening he spoke of how Chopin’s personality seems to have eluded everyone, even those who have read as hard as they can between the lines of the surviving correspondence, and how in a sense the only way to get to know Chopin is through the music. And Chopin’s piano music is very personal in its nature. Those who witness the process of its interpretation can easily share in the intimacy that arises thereby, and the experience can be magical.

Each half of the concert contained a sequence of numbers of greatly contrasting scale and mood. The big forms, such as the two Ballades (Nos. 1 & 3), the Grande Valse Op. 18 and the Grande Polonaise Op. 22 were brilliantly executed, as was the Barcarole, and the Etude in B Minor Op. 25, which has long passages in octaves, really did come over as the dazzling tour de force that it is. The small Waltzes and Nocturnes demand less in the way of virtuosic technique but require every bit as much interpretative intellect and they, too, were beautifully delivered. The little Waltz in A minor, Op. 34 was quite sublime. For the second of his two encores he played the E major Etude, Op. 10, and it was equally enchanting.

I have one small general criticism which is that the fastest, loudest and most virtuoso parts of the offering might to my ears have been just slightly too tremendous – so that a little of the detail and line was sometimes hard to follow amid all that passion. That notwithstanding, this was a very special evening and one of Jack’s unique genre. In these times it is as great a privilege as it ever was to be moved by spending time sitting in a small hall near a piano that is being played publicly by a real person. Fortunately for us, and all who missed it, that person will be back, on Monday, and this time it’s Gershwin.
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