December 15: I Got Gershwin

I Got Gershwin Saturday 5 December 2015, Great Hall, University of Exeter

Gershwin’s music inhabits a fluid space between classical and pop. At the Great Hall, Exeter University, Exeter Festival Chorus hosted I Got Gershwin, a Christmas Gala concert, with contributions from The Big Buzzard Boogie Band and Andy Williamson, the Exeter Big Noise Chorus with Colin Rea, and soloist Claire Martin. As always, Nigel Perrin was the Conductor of The Exeter Festival Chorus.

This ambitious Christmas Gala attempted to bring together a range of pop songs with ten George and Ira Gershwin classics.

Claire Martin, one of our finest jazz divas, was on hand to add cabaret style interpretations of blues and jazz standards. Accompanying Claire on the piano was the impressively inventive Gareth Williams.

After two colourful jazz instrumental numbers by the lively Big Buzzard Boogie Band with Andy Williamson, the mood of the evening moved to two pop songs by the ‘no-audition’ Exeter Big Noise Chorus, conducted by Colin Rea and accompanied by piano and violin. As if this was a taste of things to come, the Big Noise Chorus was somewhat at odds with the Gershwin Jazz tone of the evening.

The jazz feeling of the concert was shortly and safely returned to the stage by a wonderful set from Claire Martin.

Before the interval, the Exeter Festival Chorus took full control of the imposing venue with three superbly arranged pop and jazz classics. Java Jive in particular was packed full of southern jazz-style harmony and humour. The ice was truly broken, with Nigel Perrin performing a bluesy soulful singing cameo to add to the free spirit of the music. We could have been in the Cotton Club!

The hokum of Java Jive was successfully preceded by the surprisingly soulful Bridge over Troubled Water. Gershwin’s bridge from pop into jazz and blues had been joyfully navigated.

The second part of the Christmas Gala featured the headline work of the evening - I Got Gershwin, Ned Bennett’s ‘Jazz Extravaganza’ featuring ten of George and Ira Gershwin’s best known works. The elegantly rhythmic instrumental skills of the Boogie Band and the silky vocals of Claire Martin were not always matched when both choruses sang together. The introduction of a string quartet for the most part added very little to Gershwin’s love of big brass and large harmonies.

None the less it was a night of great diversity with the arrangements of Ned Bennett pushing the audience into the exciting Jazz age world of America in the 1930s.

John Francis 6 December 2015