New Classical Tracks: A Jazzy Take on Gershwin

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
August 3, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet has always been kind of a jazzy fellow. For years he made a fashion statement on stage wearing a Versace outfit and red socks. These days, his musical personality has become more colorful, as he wades into various musical waters ranging from opera to film scores. On his latest release with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, he dives into the jazz-band orchestrations of three Gershwin classics.

In 1976 it was Michael Tilson Thomas who took the plunge and recorded the original jazz band version of Ferde Grofe's orchestration of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Jean-Yves Thibaudet brings this saucy arrangement to life with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony. "The Rhapsody is much better this way," Thibaudet explains. "It has a completely different feeling and sound. The entire experience is different -- it's much jazzier."

The Baltimore Symphony transforms into a big band in this vivacious arrangement. Jean-Yves Thibaudet strides his way through the piano part as the brass and winds flirt playfully with the piano. Powerful pauses, sudden rhythmic shifts, whines from the woodwinds and wah-wah slides from the brass turn this into a musical kaleidoscope of America, just as the composer intended.

Ferde Grofe's orchestration of Gershwin's Concerto in F also brings out the jazzier side of this work. Since he had already orchestrated the Concerto in F, Gershwin was not pleased when band leader Paul Whiteman requested Grofe draft new orchestration for this work. For historical purposes, the Gershwin estate finally allowed Marin Alsop to record it with the Concordia Orchestra some 20 years ago. On this release with the Baltimore Symphony, she and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet really swing. Thibaudet says, "If you don't swing, you don't play the Concerto in F."

He loves that this work puts Gershwin squarely in two chairs, classical and jazz, allowing the musicians to go to different degrees in one vein or the other. The first movement opens with a blast from the timpani. The subdued piano introduction follows a full orchestral opening. The entire movement shifts between the contrasting moods of bold chords and octaves and the use of delicate triplets.

A bluesy trumpet and clarinet trio opens the second movement marked Andante con Moto. The movement quickly slips into the world of honky-tonk and New Orleans style jazz. It sounds smoky and enticing. The piano and xylophone trade barbs in the final ragtime movement, which explodes with percussive excitement.

Thibaudet and Marin Alsop dug out Gershwin's original 1934 manuscript of the "I Got Rhythm Variations" for this recording. The composer used to brag about writing piano music and not letting one hand know what the other was doing. Thibaudet's snappy performance sounds as if he's grown an additional set of hands to pull off the syncopated rhythm and sonic clashes.

Gershwin has always been a star in France. Jean-Yves Thibaudet believes Gershwin is underappreciated in his own country, that's one reason he wanted to make this recording using the big band arrangements of some of the composer's best loved and most recognizable works. Like Jean-Yves Thibaudet's red socks, the jazz band arrangements add a splash of pizzazz to these Gershwin classics. Gershwin loved a great party, and this recording will provide the perfect atmosphere for any festivity you have planned this summer.

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