Popular pianist Jack Gibbons is back in Oxford this month for his annual piano concert series, an incredible 33 years since a few Chopin recitals at the Holywell Music Room laid the foundations for what has become an established part of Oxford’s summer calendar.
There are just two concerts this year instead of the usual six, but they are nevertheless a welcome treat for his many local fans as we emerge from Covid restrictions.
“These two Oxford concerts will be my first public concerts since the start of the pandemic”
“It will be an emotional occasion returning to performing after such a long time,” Jack says. “My last concert took place in the United States in February 2020. These two Oxford concerts will be my first public concerts since the start of the pandemic.”
Appropriately, Chopin starts the ball rolling at the first concert, on 20th July, which features a selection of Etudes as well as the Mazurka in A flat major Op.59 No.2, Prelude in A flat major Op.28 No.17, Sonata in B minor Op.58 and Barcarolle Op.60.
For the second concert, on 24th July, Jack turns the spotlight on Gershwin, a composer with whom he is famously associated – leading to the BBC describing him as ‘THE Gershwin pianist of our time’. This programme includes Jack’s own reconstructions of Gershwin classics such as Rhapsody in Blue, Swanee, Fascinating Rhythm and I Got Rhythm, among others.
the concert on 20th July, features the world premiere of jack’s latest piano work composition, Fantaisie Op.116.
“Choosing the music for just two concerts wasn’t easy, but in the end I chose to keep my programmes as close as possible to the ones I had originally planned to give in Oxford in Easter 2020, which I had to cancel at the start of the pandemic,” Jack explains.
“Both concerts include some very special works by these two wonderful composers. For example, in the Chopin programme I’m playing Chopin’s deeply moving Sonata B Minor Op.58, a work into which he poured all his grief following the death of his father.
“I will also be playing Chopin’s Barcarolle, another of the composer’s most deeply felt pieces.
“In the Gershwin programme I’m playing the much-loved Rhapsody in Blue (of course!) and some of my note-for-note transcriptions of Gershwin’s ‘pepped up’ show-tune improvisations, which he recorded on 78s in the 1920s.
“I’m also very excited to be playing my piano transcription of the rarely-heard Second Rhapsody – it’s a piece of extraordinary intensity and so undervalued.”
Both concerts will also feature some of Jack’s own compositions – including, on 20th July, the world premiere of his latest piano work, Fantaisie Op.116.
“a serious car accident in March 2001 would have ended my life but for the wonderful work of the NHS at the John Radcliffe Hospital”
“It’s the most ambitious piece I’ve written to date,” he says. “It was composed over a period of about four months last winter and was completed, by sheer coincidence, on my birthday this year, 2nd March.
“It’s hard for me to talk about my own work, but all I can say is I tried to put my heart and soul into this piece and its first performance will be a very significant personal moment for me.
“It has long been my dream to compose music during the year and then present my work in my summer concerts in Oxford. Though composing is an immensely difficult thing to do (far harder than playing the piano!) it is something that brings me more fulfilment than anything else I know.”
Jack will also play his Shanty Op.59 at the first concert, and there will be a second chance to hear Fantaisie at the second concert, alongside Jack’s Nocturne in B flat minor Op.93 and Impromptu Op.98.
In a break with tradition, Jack has moved from the Holywell Music Room to make his SJE debut – a prospect he is clearly relishing.
“For many years John King tried to persuade me to play at SJE,” he says. “This year, after attending his very moving memorial concert at SJE, I decided to move my summer series to this beautiful venue, and I am looking forward to playing its magnificent Steinway in such a glorious acoustic.
So, what’s next for Jack after these two SJE concerts?
“I’m hoping more than anything else that I’ll have more opportunity to compose in the future,” he says. “In some ways I feel I’m only just getting going.
“I had dreams of being a composer back in my teens, but they were put on hold to pursue my piano-playing career. It was after a serious car accident in March 2001, which would have ended my life but for the wonderful work of the NHS at the John Radcliffe Hospital, that I began to focus on composition again for the first time in 25 years.
“At that time I wrote songs, many of which were sung and recorded for the first time by the soprano Ann Mackay. Since then I’ve continued to compose and have written a number of piano works.
“In addition to composing I hope to keep giving frequent concerts in Oxford, especially once things begin to return to normal.
Jack Gibbons’ Oxford Summer Piano Series is at the SJE on 20th and 24th July. Details and tickets at www.ticketsoxford.com.
For a YouTube trailer of Jack’s concerts, visit www.sje-oxford.org/event/jack-gibbons-plays-chopin-and-gibbons/