Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was only 15 years old when he learned George Gershwin's “Concerto in F.” And while he remembers that the notes and rhythms were all correctly played, he shudders to think what the performance might have sounded like.
“My parents didn't have any jazz recordings when I was growing up so I really didn't know what jazz was,” Thibaudet said recently. “To understand Gershwin's music and really play it, you have to know jazz. If you try to play it straight, it just doesn't work.
“It would be like speaking a language phonetically without any knowledge of what you were saying. I didn't become familiar with jazz until much later on. I've since recorded two jazz albums and while I don't consider myself a jazz musician, I think I understand it much better today.”
Thibaudet returns to Oklahoma this week for his fifth appearance with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. In addition to Gershwin's “Concerto in F,” this season finale will feature Ravel's “Alborada del Gracioso” and “Rhapsody Espagnole,” as well as Respighi's “Fountains of Rome.”
While Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue” turns up frequently on pops and classics programs, the “Concerto in F” is heard far less often. That's puzzling for many reasons: It has a conventional structure, its melodic themes are quite memorable and it makes a fine impression on audiences.
“I played the ‘Concerto in F' with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2005,” Thibaudet said. “We discovered after some checking that this was the first time in the orchestra's history that the ‘Concerto in F' had been programmed on the classics series.”
Walter Damrosch, music director of the New York Symphony
Gershwin accepted and completed the score in November 1925. Damrosch gave the “Concerto in F” its world premiere on Dec. 3 with the composer as soloist. It proved to be a popular success but critics were divided.
Was it a tightly constructed jazz piece or a classical work that incorporated jazz elements? In retrospect, such discussions scarcely matter. Today, the “Concerto in F” is widely regarded as a true Gershwin masterpiece.