Thibaudet On Location Residency: THE CONCERTS
FRENCH connection links a jazzy slice of AMERICANA
with Impressions of SPAIN
The first big event of the residency was a concert billed as “Impressions of Spain,” performed over Thanksgiving weekend 2001 (November 23, 24 & 25). A predominantly Spanish theme? Si! Predominantly Spanish players? No!
Indeed, nothing about the composers or the concert’s principal players was suggestive of anything Spanish. In fact, with Emmanuel Krivine conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and Jean-Yves Thibaudet as guest soloist – both of them natives of Lyon, the accent was predominantly French.
And to start with, American. The concert opened close to home with George Gershwin’s impressions of – well, not quite Spain, but close enough – Cuba! The Cuban Overture, which premiered in 1932 as Rumba, was written after a short visit to Havana. Clearly, he was fascinated by what he saw and heard. He captured the colors and the rhythms of the city and the dance and, importing the unique sounds of Cuban instruments, fused rumba, ragtime and blues into a symphonic overture worthy of the name. Krivine brought out these colors and rhythms with his delightfully nuanced reading of the overture, a Frenchman clearly comfortable with Gershwin and charmed by his distinctly American sound.
There was nothing reminiscent of Spain in the concert’s plat du jour, but it had everything to celebrate about Gershwin, and thus had a place in the program. The Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra (written before the Cuban Overture and commissioned for the New York Symphony Orchestra by its conductor Walter Damrosch) was not Gershwin’s first foray into “serious music” (Rhapsody in Blue was), but it was his first true classical concerto – jazz in three movements (fast-slow-fast), if you will – written and orchestrated by him (Rhapsody wasn’t)* down to the last note.
Written when he was only 27, the concerto is unmistakably Gershwin – summoning images of fast-paced New York of the 1920s; and brimming with youthful energy, beautiful flowing melodies, fascinating rhythms, originality, and a sense of musical exploration that surely would have taken him to even greater heights as a composer of large-scale works had fate not sadly intervened.
And the playing was unmistakably Thibaudet – brimming with youthful energy, panache, and brilliance. And in this case, a fondness for Gershwin that reflected Jean-Yves’ gift for musical exploration. With clarity and digital dexterity he played the beautiful, bluesy melodies that infuse all movements of the work – as much with poetic feeling as with Gershwinian casual cool, or spirited rapidité, as the case may be. And certainly this Frenchman did not get lost, but rather reveled, in the melange of jazzy American rhythms – a measure not only of this classical pianist’s fascination with jazz but of the Americanization of someone for whom America has become a second home? Or is it because the accents of the impressionist French composers, Ravel and Debussy, (of whom Thibaudet is today’s preeminent interpreter and to whose music Gershwin himself was drawn) are perceptible in Gershwin’s concerto? Or is it because, to begin with, jazz was an important influence on Gershwin and the French composers he admired?
Whatever… at least one can now conjecture a connection between both Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and Concerto in F and the rest of the program, which is unmistakably all about “Impressions of Spain.” Claude Debussy’s Iberia (the second of a 3-piece set entitled Images pour Orchestre), which opened the program’s second half is a musical canvas in three movements, splashed with the pastel colors of the composer’s memories of a brief visit to Spain (not unlike Gershwin’s visit to Havana) – all but a few hours of one afternoon! The colors shimmer dream-like in the light, and with Andalusian rhythm conjure a mosaic of images that are undeniably Spanish, painted with a decidedly French impressionist brush.
The program finale was Maurice Ravel’s impressions of Spain, embodied in the very popular Bolero. Unlike Iberia, it is painted with one broad brush stroke, repeated almost endlessly by exciting instrumental solos alternately singing with singular rhythm the bright, seductive colors of Moorish Spain.
The work is one long crescendo that ends with a flourish, an amazing triumph of Ravel’s orchestration. And it never fails to delight an audience, as it did during Thibaudet’s “on location residency” when a virtuoso French pianist and an accomplished French conductor directing a great orchestra turned a concert of seemingly disparate parts into a coherent whole – and a most satisfying musical experience. And a great time – which the gleefully audience acknowledged with generous rounds of standing ovation.
*Rhapsody was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé.
Note: As part of the residency, elementary school students were invited to observe Mr. Thibaudet in rehearsal with the LA Philharmonic for this concert. Also, at every performance during intermission, Jean-Yves, seated at a table set up in the lobby for the occasion, signed copies of his compact discs.