Gershwin (and others!) in Focus
JACK GIBBONS talks to Bill Newman

Written by: Bill Newman

Turning to his fans – and I refer to everyone in the hall – Jack Gibbons can immediately catch their attention with a light-hearted sketch about Gershwin or Alkan, describing the music in plain man’s language and delighting everyone with true-life stories and quick-fire impressions.

Unlike your academic bore, Jack has that gift of balancing words and music to a tee with nothing left to chance. You come away having learnt more in one evening compared to most other musical events put together, with the added bonus of enjoying some superb playing. He takes his act around the world with him, as he explains. “During the Ira Gershwin Centenary Year, I put together a programme of song arrangements and improvisations that combined the multi-talents of him and his brother George for performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.”

Much earlier at Oxford Jack had been performing Chopin and Liszt with great success. Then he discovered the music of Alkan through listening to a commercial recording by Ronald Smith – his Grande Sonate and Concerto for solo piano. “I was 13 or 14. I started programming his works in my concerts. You need good stamina, and I was lucky to be born with good playing-hands and strong wrists for the continuous succession of octaves. Studying with various people, I developed my own technique. I am a firm believer that anything you achieve yourself is twice as valuable as what others pass on to you.”

Jack also told other youngsters that they were bound to benefit more from their own efforts, allowing that he probably lost potential students that way, but it was during his final years at the Guildhall School of Music that self-tuition proved correct. “After leaving Newport College, I spent years studying and developing my technique, listening to myplaying, constantly changing the sound I made. I was fond of Michelangeli’s playing, and that helped me considerably more than lessons! Now, I am very aware of what I am capable of. Psychologically, playing Gershwin makes me very relaxed and gives me an approach and involvement with audiences. Concerts and recitals are a kind of informal party: I like to communicate with the audience, and I enjoy broadcasting.

“Before I discovered Gershwin, my background was completely limited. I had left the music profession for a time because of its narrow-minded tendencies and rat-race attitudes. With up-tight feelings on the subject of careers generally combined with the surrounding competition, it was important to me that any return to music-making would have to be enjoyable. You read about young pianists who have just won competitions staying in hotel rooms and having a grim time. It took the fun out of music and the way they played. It probably affected their audiences the same way! In 1990 I gave two concerts in London – my first since 1984 – a Chopin recital at the Wigmore Hall then, a couple of months later, Gershwin at the Queen Elizabeth Hall to a standing ovation. I knew then that there was no way back, and it now involves 50-60 recitals throughout Europe, America and the Middle East.”

Although Jack has Concert Manager Maureen Lunn representing him in London, he likes to be in control, and his wife Diana acts as ’a kind of manager’. “A lot of young artists feel that finding an agent is the answer to their problems. It isn’t at all. I began promoting my own concerts while in my teens, and in terms of what is happening now, it is the aftermath of that. It was never a correlated plan and has arisen as a result of necessity, but being in control also has its problems like delegation of responsibility.”

Jack is rightly proud of his Gershwin CDs for ASV, but “I also produce my own commercial recordings, and am amazed that artists can allow a third party to choose their takes for the finished disc. And I am very lucky – I really love Tony Faulkner’s sound. The piano is particularly difficult to record, and the fine, open acoustic for my Hyperion recording of Lambert’s Rio Grande is so different from some of the boxed-in sounds I have heard. The sense of fun in the performance came directly out of the atmosphere on the sessions.”

Getting under the skin of Gershwin comes from reconstructing the sound of the composer in piano roll and original studio or live recordings. “These things were not written down but are part variations, part improvisations which Gershwin penned at parties. They were very intricately worked out, sometimes with brief written annotations, and gradually you get to know how his mind worked and the way he played.”

“At first, transcribing was hard work, although jazz musicians are used to it. But everything below Middle C on the originals is covered with crackles and indistinct bass notes. When Gershwin played loud it set off all kinds of harmonics, but after a while I could guess at what he was doing and listened to different versions of ’I got Rhythm’ and ’Strike up the Band’, recorded at the same time with instinctively different variation figures. Oscar Levant would say ’when Gershwin sat down at the piano, ideas came to him straight away’, and aside from Levant’s sarcastic wit, he was probably awed by Gershwin’s enormous talent when they first met.”

Levant was also the finest exponent of Gershwin’s music, with its offbeat accents and rhythms, after the composer’s death. “It’s a shame that players are now pigeon-holed as either classical or jazz pianists. Gershwin’s song improvisations require a virtuoso technique which classical pianists have, and yet they are not brought up to play this music. It shouldn’t be too stiff in approach, or too free in the way a jazz pianist would play it, but it must have that movement of dance about it. I would love to tap dance like Fred Astaire!”

Jack Gibbons’s series of summer concerts at Oxford each year – Chopin, Alkan and Gershwin – with their speech and music would make excellent live video. In the artist’s opinion, “if you can make the audience laugh, they can also be relaxed enough to be moved by anything as serious as music can possibly be. To relax is to enjoy; that’s why I started to talk, and that relaxes me, too!”

A composer of Alkan’s strong personality has both his supporters and detractors. “His output is uneven, like a lot of composers, and you have to listen to find his way of thinking. Gershwin too – you can either love or hate it, but there should be no contradictions about making music entertaining while approaching it seriously. “Alkan should be a lot more popular than he is, and more people respond when they listen, but he has to be more-often performed. I don’t like the idea of music being aloof; it should be there to be enjoyed, but it doesn’t mean I am there to perform in a light-hearted manner – to laugh and cry at the same time is all part of the same emotion, really. Alkan was true to himself as a personality, and very unpretentious, with an almost childlike naivety. To criticise is not to understand his full character, and he used no front in order to impress but worked very much on his own writings which are honest, direct and very moving.

“For me, this is always a reflection of any composer’s personality which shows up even when they try to hide it. You get to know all these composers, even if they died hundreds of years ago. Like the music of Bach. In The Art of Fugue he is exploring music for its own sake, but some of the works are superb. Just because he is serious doesn’t mean that he lacks a sense of fun as well. He is full of life and enthusiasm, and there are descriptions of his own performances where his whole body moved with rhythm.

“Because he was such a sociable person his home was like a beehive with people coming and going all the time, yet the public sometimes get the wrong impression of someone stiff and unapproachable. I love the Preludes and Fugues, but my favourite music is the Passions – particular the St. John.

“I also admire Sibelius and Elgar.

“Basically I am a romantic by heart, and music has to have a lot of warmth to appeal to me. The simplistic remark of classic, romantic, modern is like describing superficial fashions, and what I prefer is a flat plain throughout history out of which come various peaks that are the individual personalities like Bach and Chopin. They are not part of the fashion at all and, if you think about it, Bach’s music is not typically Baroque, and Chopin doesn’t really fit into the Romantic movement.

“Similarly, Gershwin didn’t fit into the twentieth century either. If I started teaching people music they would all begin to fail their exams, but in order to be successful at it you have to be a good academic, tedious and dry as dust as it may be. It is necessary for your overall knowledge and ability to take music seriously, but at the same time you don’t want to lose your sense of enjoyment. A certain amount of slog is required when you are young and still at school, and fortunately I was good at reading music, analyses and other things. It entered my head without me realising it!

“Impart this to others, and the first thing you see is that they didn’t realise they would have to learn figured bass, harmonies and such like, but it all serves towards the study of different composer personalities, rather than the various schools. After all, the rules came about through analysing music that already existed, and not the other way round. Yet with certain modern composers it appears they are trying to impress through pure academic technique. When music becomes so involved with itself it ceases to involve the listener, and over-careful study of the score doesn’t achieve anything at all. What’s wrong with a melody you can whistle!”

For someone so involved in communicating music, did Jack ever hanker after one of the other professions? “I think now I would love to be a scientist, because my wife is a micro-biologist. Unfortunately, at school, science wasn’t opened up to me so I wasn’t fascinated then, maybe because I wasn’t taught correctly. History and other subjects I enjoyed, and when I didn’t go to university – but music-college instead – people thought I was putting my eggs in one basket. I became so obsessed by music, but now I have become interested in science, astronomy – mind-boggling subjects in themselves – and I get very annoyed with people who are turned-off by them.”

TV has become a recent development to Jack’s music scene. “I recorded “the Playing of Gershwin” for the Selina Scott Show on NBC Satellite.” Some time back he took part in the Des O’Connor show – “a terrific entertainer and very serious person, contrary to what others think, and a great Gershwin fan. Yes, it would be nice to do a talking-playing Gershwin Video. New York, Washington and Paris are always on the itinerary. I take things as they come and have no pre-conceived plans.”

  • Gershwin in Focus – Jack Gibbons and Sir Ben Kingsley journey through Gershwin’s life: Sunday 13 July, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London at 7.45
  • South Bank Centre

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