Monday February 19, 2018 5:31 am

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Rhapsody at the Hollywood Bowl

Could a Frenchman possibly be today’s leading Gershwin interpreter?

Thibaudet after Gershwin Concert at Hollywood Bowl

Jean-Yves signing autographs after his performance at the Bowl's "Gershwin Celebration"

Why not? Especially if that Frenchman also happens to be today’s leading Ravel interpreter. If you are familiar with the music of both Gershwin and Ravel, you know that the two composers go together. At the height of their careers, they sought each other out: Gershwin the preeminent tunesmith seeking to learn from Ravel the master orchestrator, and Ravel in turn finding inspiration for his works in the syncopation and rhythm of Gershwin’s jazz. Thus, you don’t even begin to wonder why Thibaudet has that natural affinity for Gershwin, or for jazz in general.

At Maestro Leonard Slatkin’s inaugural week in July 2005 as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, Thibaudet played Gershwin with the bravura of a true jazz aficionado. By Thibaudet’s own admission, he is by virtue of his training a stranger to that hallmark element of jazz – improvisation. Thus, though celebrated first and foremost as a classical pianist, he lays no claim nor aspires to being known also as a jazz artist. But jazz is one of his passions, and an opportunity that allows him to express his art in the idiom of jazz is gladly accepted – and his fans are all the happier for it.

At the Bowl’s Gershwin Celebration, Thibaudet performed three of Gershwin’s works for the concert hall: Concerto in F, Variations on “I Got Rhythm” (both scored by him for piano soloist and orchestra) and Rhapsody in Blue, the one-movement “jazz concerto” orchestrated by Ferde Grofé that first gained for Gershwin notice as a composer of “real” music – until then he was famous, yes, but as a miniaturist composer of songs and little pieces.
LISTEN TO CLIPS (excerpted from Jean-Yves’ Gershwin CD with MARIN ALSOP conducting the Baltimore Symphony):

CONCERTO in F for Piano & Orchestra
Allegro agitato
Variations on I GOT RHYTHM


It was Rhapsody – available in three versions, Slatkin announced from the podium – that we had occasion to enjoy. For this special Gershwin event the Maestro chose the arrangement that blends jazz instruments with orchestra. The Bowl’s new shell turned a glowing electric blue as the Rhapsody’s opening clarinet glissando gave way to the rapid rat-a-tat of the piano solo. With Gershwin as with Ravel, Thibaudet dazzled, musically uncompromising as his long, graceful fingers raced across the keyboard through the rhythmic heights and plains of repeated themes – shifting between forcefulness and lightness, but always with unswerving precision and clarity and a marvelous sense of enjoyment. Rhapsodic! Gershwin would have approved and Ravel would have applauded. In Thibaudet indeed the two composers – transatlantic soulmates – meet.

Rhapsody in Blue was preceded by Gershwiniana, an orchestral suite of Gershwin songs (arranged by Rob Mathes at the request of Leonard Slatkin), and Lullaby, a rarely heard early Gershwin composition that visibly delighted the audience.

The second half of the program was a 45-minute arrangement (by Gershwin friend Robert Russel Bennett) of the vocal highlights from Porgy and Bess. With a star-studded cast of Broadway and TV personalities (Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Wayne Brady) and the Paul Smith Singers, and with a treasure trove of popular, beloved songs, this abbreviated concert version of Gershwin’s one and only foray into opera, was a big hit with the audience.

Gershwin once wrote of jazz: “I believe that it can be made the basis of serious symphonic works of lasting value, in the hands of a composer with talent for both jazz and symphonic music.” How true! At the Bowl in the summer of 2005, Leonard Slatkin and his eminent guest artists reaffirmed that Gershwin will always be a cause for celebration.

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