Gershwin is celebrated in Plymouth

United KingdomUnited Kingdom A Gershwin Celebration: Robert Taub (piano), London Gershwin Players / Mark Forkgen (conductor) Levinsky Hall, University of Plymouth, 27.1.2024. (PRB)

Robert Taub plays Gershwin with the London Gershwin Players © Philip R Buttall

Gershwin – Overture to the musical Girl Crazy; Rhapsody in Blue (the original jazz-band version for the Paul Whiteman Band); Porgy and Bess Fantasy; An American in Paris

For some sixteen years, the University of Plymouth had been the focal point for chamber music. Many top national and international artists and ensembles performed at the university’s Sherwell Centre. That took place on campus, but it was essentially a private venture of a group of trustees.

When Dr Robert Taub took over the role of Director of Music at the university’s Arts Institute in 2018, the university quickly established itself as the go-to place for professional music performances in the city and surrounding area. Taub set up the Musica Viva concert series, which began with an all-Mozart inaugural concert the following year in the Minster Church of St Andrew. He was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor played by the internationally acclaimed London Mozart Players.

Not only did that concert set the bar very high, but – more important – it confirmed that Taub, a well-established concert pianist in his own right, would take part in the majority of concerts to follow, playing alongside national and international professional colleagues.

The question of a suitable home for Musica Viva remained, until a lecture theatre in the Arts-dedicated Levinsky Building was refurbished acoustically and adapted for audience comfort. The venue became known in 2022 as Levinsky Hall. The rest, as they say, is history.

From the outset, Taub has adopted the highly successful welcoming formula of a thirty-minute pre-concert talk, followed by two hours of music-making with an interval. So popular has this been, in fact, that virtually the whole audience is seated before the opening talk begins, eager to hear in general terms about the music to come from the performers charged with its execution. If one seeks a more analytic, academic approach, Taub’s programme notes are always a mine of information, to be pored over later.

After the customary pre-concert talk, hosted by Taub with the assistance of conductor Mark Forkgen, the London Gershwin Players launched into Gershwin’s Overture to the 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy. It was a typical Gershwin pot-pourri of the best-loved songs from the show. Forkgen and his players adeptly crafted it to ensure an expressive balance between some of the composer’s truly romantic utterances and a sense of direction or forward momentum along the way. The twenty-seven or so players created a nicely transparent texture, and solo moments never needed an undue emphasis or forcing.

Robert Taub joined the orchestra – or should we call it a band – for a performance of the composer’s arguably best-known and best-loved work, the Rhapsody in Blue. The question of ‘band’ versus ‘orchestra’ arises simply because most performances of Gershwin’s iconic amalgam of jazz and classical style we hear today pit the soloist against a full symphony orchestra. In contrast, this performance presented the initial version, which Ferde Grofé of Grand Canyon Suite fame orchestrated in 1924 specifically for Paul Whiteman’s Band; Grofé was also responsible for the large-orchestra arrangement in 1942. Taub writes in the programme note how pleased he is to be performing the earlier version. He points out that it is ‘tighter and edgier’ – audibly in this case – and ‘closer to Gershwin’s original idea’.

I still prefer the large-orchestra version, because I prefer a lush symphonic string sound, but the twelve string players of the London Gershwin Players did a sterling job in providing suitably lavish support. It featured some appropriately sweet tone from leader Matthew Scrivener in his little solo moments.

The Steinway Model C, formerly from Sherwell Centre, did a stalwart job. With Taub’s now well-honed facility to jockey the instrument like a thoroughbred race-horse in a Derby, everything was there for all to hear. The playing was greatly assisted by the more translucent accompaniment, and taut ensemble, which Mark Forkgen controlled with critical aplomb. In terms of authenticity, then, this performance was no doubt up there with some of the best. Even so, my stated symphony-orchestra preference aside, I will not be wholly satisfied until the Model C has managed to morph into a full-size Model D. Either way, though, this was an astute piece of programming, on the 100th anniversary of the Rhapsody’s composition.

The second half began with the Porgy and Bess Fantasy. It includes many of the best-loved songs and orchestral elements in ‘America’s Folk Opera’, the first American opera to be performed at La Scala in 1955.

Cast in a number of autonomous movements, the Fantasy proved a perfect vehicle for the individual and collective strengths of the London Gershwin Players. There was some lovely, articulate and warmly expressive playing from the flute, doubling on piccolo. The lead clarinet continued to shine after her initial ‘baptism by fire’ at the start of Rhapsody in Blue. Oboe, bassoon and alto sax also made telling contributions, and horns and brass were really buzzing. But visually it was hard to keep one’s eyes off the two percussionists. They managed a real array of instruments from drum kit to timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel and more, that frequently saw the players running around the set. They clearly enjoyed the challenge, and never put a foot, or indeed a stick, wrong.

The final number, An American in Paris, really brought just more of the same. This time it was appropriately served up with Béchamel sauce rather than something more piquant from South Carolina, the fictitious location of Porgy and Bess. And let us not forget some virtuoso taxi horn playing, courtesy of the ever-busy percussion section.

This had to be one of the most party-like concerts in the Musica Viva series to date. Clearly, the audience was expecting this: ‘sold-out’ signs appeared unusually early in the run-up to the event.

Part of Musica Viva’s mission statement is ‘to bring internationally-acclaimed performers to the Plymouth community to inspire, educate, challenge, and unite audiences’. This has definitely been adhered to unflinchingly from the very start. With continuing support from the Arts Institute at the University of Plymouth, and the vision, drive and many talents of Director Bob Taub – our ‘American in Plymouth’, so to speak – it will surely only go from strength to strength as each new season rolls around.

Philip R Buttall

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