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By Ian Lace

June 2016

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924) [19.25] Piano Concerto in F (1925) [37.29] Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ [10.34] Eight Preludes for Solo Piano (1926-27) [17.30] (see end of review for detail of Preludes) Mark Bebbington (piano) Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Leon Botstein rec. St John’s, Smith Square, London, 2-3 October 2015 SOMM SOMMCD260-2 [67.47 + 17.30]

This is rather a new look at some very familiar Gershwin. Bebbington — well known for his probing readings — claims that he and Botstein “… discovered unexpected shades among the famous melodies …” The result: a freshness and a sense of joyous spontaneity that is distinctly appealing. Rather than a polite stuffy Park Avenue sensibility, this interpretation seems to tap the very essence of the thrusting, thriving metropolis that is the real New York.

The Piano Concerto in F was written in the year followingRhapsody in Blue and what strides in confidence and technique Gershwin gained in such a short time. One can tell right from the beginning, with the raw, emphatic timpani thuds that this reading is going to be something rather special. Rhythmic vitality is very much in evidence; so much so that I was completely carried away and could hardly keep still through much of the progress of the opening Allegro movement. Bebbington is alert to all the jazz inflections and syncopations without sacrificing the more classical elements. The music is thrillingly and unusually detailed and nuanced in bright sound engineered by Ben Connellan.

In a separate press release issued by Somm, Bebbington, claimed that "There is a real Mahlerian melancholy that lies at the heart of the slow movement of the Concerto, and it's when you take note of those profundities that the fierce joy elsewhere really makes sense." That may be so but for me the music of this exquisite movement is more reminiscent of Delius’s Paris. Both works share the elation of what could be a night out, a slightly tipsy one for Bebbington, around the City hot-spots before the music quietens. You sense the observer has wandered into a quieter, leafy part of the City and is in a sadder, more reflective mood brooding over ‘what might have been’?

The Final Allegro returns us to bustling, busy daytime City business; the rawness and urgency of its commerce with honking taxis and loud, colourful demonstrative New Yorkers. Then at the work’s final climax one senses a drawing away from the particular to an overall bird's eye view of the metropolis; the swagger falls away to be replaced by material cast in what Elgar termed nobilmente mood demonstrating an immense sense of affection and pride in this great City.

Very much the same comments apply to Bebbington and Botstein’s view of the more familiar Rhapsody in Blue. Their reading brings a breath of fresh air – the music has depth and contrast; the high spirits are brash, raw and invigorating. Again you hear material rarely discerned. Bebbington’s brilliant virtuosity makes the cadenza glow and that heart-warming tune is tenderly sung. The Bebbington/Botstein Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’ are joyous too. Elated, the music skips, hops and leaps merrily through sparkling syncopations - and dreams romantically.

In an astute ‘two for the price of one’ marketing ploy, Somm offers a 17+ minute second CD devoted to the Eight Preludes for solo piano. The detail of them, with self-explanatory descriptions is set below and the music is drawn from the Piano Concerto heard on CD 1 and much material Gershwin used in other works. All are played with Bebbington’s virtuosic mastery and expressive aplomb.

So, accepting that these readings of the Concerto and Rhapsody are entering a very crowded field they should hold their own very well. My ultimate choice for best recording? I will confess I still maintain my allegiance to André Previn’s 1971 EMI Classics recording now available on Warner Classics and Leonard Bernstein’s acclaimed CBS-Sony reading.

Original story here.

Review: Gershwin: Piano Concerto, Eight Preludes etc CD review – persuasive swagger

The Guardian

By Erica Jeal

June 9, 2016

Pianist Mark Bebbington brings a nice balance of swagger and thoughtfulness to this all-Gershwin programme. He has said he finds a “Mahlerian melancholy” in the second movement of the Concerto in F, which is almost a concerto in itself, and his playing here is supported by some shapely and characterful wind playing. But the whole work brings a tautly wound performance under conductor Leon Botstein. Rhapsody in Blue starts with a clarinet solo even more languorous than usual, and the RPO’s colours at times are almost garish – the muted trumpets play up the wah-wahs for all they’re worth. But the performance is light on its feet, and the Variations on I Got Rhythm are similarly persuasive. An extra CD claims to offer the first recording as a complete set of the eight Preludes – five more than most will be familiar with in this form, all snappily played.

Original story here.

Bard College Launches Training Orchestra, 'TON'

Musical America

By Susan Elliott

September 10, 2015

In October, Bard College announced the launch of a new, as-yet-unnamed training orchestra that would be underway by the 2015-16 school year. Yesterday the college announced that 37 students had been enrolled in The Orchestra Now (the "O" carries an accent macron over it, thus TON is pronounced "tone"), which is to be based at Bard and perform in the New York area.

TON is a three-year, tuition-free, masters-degree program to be directed by Bard College president Leon Botstein, also a conductor and music historian. According to Botstein, TON's members are "forward-thinking artists who intend to redefine what it means to be an orchestra." They will be learning how to "curate repertoire that engages concertgoers, sparks new ideas, and attracts new audiences," he says.

Bard reports it has had hundreds of applicants for the Master in Music Degree Program in Curatorial, Critical, and Performance Studies, as it is called. They hail from corners far and wide, including Hungary, Korea, China, Japan, Canada, and Venezuela. Musicians will not only hone their artistic skills, they will also learn how to be teaching artists for future outreach efforts.

In addition to free tuition, which includes health insurance, students will receive a $24,000 stipend.

Asked how The Orchestra Now differed from Michael Tilson Thomas's New World Symphony, a high regarded training orchestra co-founded by Michael Tilson Thomas, who is still its artistic director, TON Executive Director Lynne Meloccaro responded:

"TON is not as interested in defining itself against New World Symphony or other training orchestras as it is with joining their efforts to address a serious need in American musical training. As far as I'm concerned, there aren't enough training organizations at this level in the United States. Like NWS, TON provides career musicians with the kind of practical experience they would expect to encounter as full-time members of an orchestra."

She also mentioned TON's "special emphasis on developing skills in social outreach and audience communication," although NWS certainly emphasizes that as well. Technically, the only quantitative difference between the two would be that Bard's program awards a masters degree. NWS is not a degree program; fellows attend for three years or less. Many have gone on to full-time professional orchestra jobs.

TON's 2015-16 schedule includes four concerts at Bard, three with Botstein, one with James Bagwell, who holds the title of associate conductor and academic director; three performances at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all with Botstein. Free concerts in NYC will be led by Marcelo Lehninger (Bronx); Zachary Schwartzman (East Village); Bagwell (Brooklyn); and JoAnn Falletta (Queens).

Original full story here.