Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pianist Tamir Ben Zvi performs works of George Gershwin

George Gershwin (
On March 19th 2016, the new Yvonne Herzog Piano Series was launched with “Gershwin is Here to
Stay”, a program performed and explained by Tamir Ben Zvi. It took place at the home of viola da gamba player and researcher Dr. Myrna Herzog, her home also being the “nerve centre” of Ensemble PHOENIX. The recital was the first to be played in Israel on the 1926 Blüthner piano that Myrna Herzog’s mother, Yvonne Herzog (1923-2015) received in her native Brazil at age 18 and played for the duration of her life. She had been a piano student of the legendary Tomás Teran, a close friend of Villa-Lobos; one of Teran’s students had been Antonio Carlos Jobim. The piano has been restored by Zamir Havkin. Myrna Herzog commented that George Gershwin would have been 28 years old in 1926, making his music totally contemporary with this piano.

Setting the scene of America at the turn of the 20th century, Tamir Ben Zvi opened with an earthy performance of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899). Ben Zvi then gave a short résumé of Gershwin’s life: George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26th 1898 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Young George’s interest in music was kindled when his parents bought Ira, their older son, a piano. George started playing it and eventually began studying with noted piano teacher Charles Hambitzer, later moving on to a number of other piano teachers. At age 16 he dropped out of school, playing in New York nightclubs and working as a “song-plugger” in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. From 1916 to 1927, he recorded several piano rolls for the pianola, which was popular at the time, some recorded with overdubbing to create the effect of four hands at the piano. His works for screen and stage quickly became standards. His lyricist for nearly all of his career was his brother Ira. George Gershwin’s most ambitious undertaking was his “folk opera” “Porgy and Bess”. It was when working on a film with Fred Astaire that Gershwin’s life came to an abrupt end, when he died of a brain tumor at age 38.

Tamir Ben Zvi then played a broad selection of Gershwin’s piano music, some of the works performed in Israel for the first time. He opened with “Realto Ripples Rag” (1917), the composer’s first published instrumental piece, but a number already carrying the hallmarks of Gershwin’s own piano style. By the time he had composed “Swanee”, Gershwin was making good money from composing. Ben Zvi played the piano version of “Swanee”, followed by the (four-hand) piano roll version. The piece quotes “Oh Suzanna” and “Old Folks at Home”. Here was the son of Jewish immigrants contributing to the melting pot of American music.

Gershwin’s dream was to become a composer of classical music and to write preludes as had Bach, Debussy and Chopin.  Ben Zvi played some of Gershwin’s preludes, a group of evocative pieces: the first a bitter-sweet, pensive piece, sensitively played and flexed gently, the second sounding somewhat oriental with its melody played in parallel 4ths; then a feisty, agile jazzy piece, followed by a leisurely-paced well-known bluesy prelude, the last also influenced by jazz – a busy, humorous and raucous work.

“The Man I Love” (lyrics: Ira Gershwin) was one of George’s greatest successes. Originally “The Girl I Love” and part of the 1924 score of “Lady Be Good”, it featured throughout the 1947 film “The Man I Love”, but has since become more famous as an independent song. Ben Zvi played two versions of it - the first thoughtful and infused with beautiful sentimentality, fine writing for the piano, moving and human expression and well “orchestrated” by Ben Zvi.  The second version was the 1949 version by American virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956), a setting brimming with ideas, Ben Zvi’s playing suggestive of jazz improvisation. 

As an aside from the Gershwin story, Tamir Ben Zvi gave a touching, caressing and nostalgic reading of Léopold Godowsky’s naïve piano piece “Alt Wien” (Old Vienna), written in 1920. Godowsky (1870-1938) was a Jewish Polish-American composer and teacher and one of the most highly regarded pianists of his time.  His “Studies on Chopin’s Études” are considered to be among the most difficult works for piano.

Back to George Gershwin and “I Got Rhythm” (published 1930) its opening phrases using the pentatonic scale. It was sung by Ethel Mermen in the original Broadway production of “Girl Crazy”. Ben Zvi gave a colourful reading of the piece, followed by his own creative and original bossa nova setting of “Summertime” suavely trimmed with some “blue” (or “worried”) notes. The program concluded with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, a work requested by bandleader Paul Whiteman and composed by Gershwin within three weeks. Originally written for solo piano and jazz band, it was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times. The work was premiered by Whiteman and his band, with Gershwin at the piano, at a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music” on February 12th 1924 in Aeolian Hall, New York. The concert represented a milestone in introducing jazz and American popular music into the concert hall.  Its rich and daring canvas incorporates all of the influences present in  Gershwin’s music – Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano music, rhythmic improvisational jazz from the Harlem clubs, folk elements from Yiddish theatre and also the lush harmonies of European post-Romantic music. In a truly virtuosic and vibrant performance of “Rhapsody in Blue”, Tamir Ben Zvi chose to play a version combining both piano and orchestral roles – a genuine tour-de-force. For his encore, pianist Tamir Ben Zvi gave a graceful, fragrant and thoughtful rendering of “(Our) Love Is Here to Stay”, George Gershwin’s last completed work (lyrics: Ira Gershwin). He did not live to hear it performed:

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay;
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies,
And in time may go!

But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay.
Together we're
Going a long, long way

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
There're only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.

1926 was the golden age of the Blüthner piano, a piano known for its Romantic, mellow sound and smooth action. Yvonne Herzog’s piano is no exception. Tamir Ben Zvi’s recital gave expression to the piano’s vivid colours and to the rich pianistic world of Gershwin.

Israeli pianist Tamir Ben Zvi holds a master’s degree from the Juilliard School of Music. The recipient of several awards and prizes, he performs a wide range of repertoire.

Tamir Ben Zvi (

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