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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Concert Review: Jazz Odyssey, Part II

Gilbert's Playlist opens with Wynton Marsalis' Swing Symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Meeting of the minds: Wynton Marsalis (left) and Alan Gilbert share a moment.
Photo by Chris Lee for nyphil.tumblr.com © 2013 The New York Philharmonic
The New York Philharmonic are back for a month-long stand at Avery Fisher Hall. On Saturday night, the orchestra played the final concert in the first weekend of Gilbert's Playlist, the month-long festival centered around the contents of music director Alan Gilbert's hard drive. The concert explored the amorphous territory between jazz and 20th century classical music, and featured the first subscription performances of Wynton Marsalis' Symphony No. 3, dubbed the Swing Symphony by the trumpeter turned composer.


At the concert's start, the packed house was treated to an unusual sight: an ensemble of just 12 players at the center of the vast stage. Under the baton of Case Scaglione (Alan Gilbert's assistant conductor) this small ensemble played Ragtime, a Stravinsky short inspired by that composer's opera L'histoire du Soldat. The bouncing rhythm and intertwining woodwind figures recalled the music of the American south, offset by the composer's unique gifts of orchestration.

Orchestration was the raison d'être for the second piece on the program: Dmitri Shostakovich's setting of the Tahitian Trot, a melody better known in this country as Tea For Two. The suddenly gigantic orchestra played this little dance absolutely straight, leaving the listener to marvel at Shostakovich's invention and sarcastic wit. The very act of setting this trifling little tune for  huge instrumental forces is a subversive act: Shostakovich thumbing his nose at the silly institutions of state-run Art.

Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto was created as a vehicle for Benny Goodman, whose success on the bandstand made him yearn for the respectability of the concert hall. Soloist Mark Nuccio showed why this is one of Copland's most inspired creations, playing the fluid legato lines of the opening movement with flair against a shifting texture of strings, piano and harp. Mr.  Nuccio brought passion and urgency into the long solo cadenza that separates the two movements. He then led the orchestra in a merry chase through the second movement, supported by Mr. Gilbert's nimble conducting.

Mr. Marsalis' Swing Symphony debuted in 2010 as the curtain-raiser for that year. For this revival, the full force of the New York Philharmonic (minus the horns) assembled onstage, surrounding the musicians of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And although it was not immediately apparent, Mr. Marsalis was in the trumpet line, sitting in the second line of players. The challenge: bringing off a complex, six-movement work that uses two ensembles to recount the history of American jazz from its birth until the experimentation of the late '60s.

The six movements of this symphony are peppered with extensive quotes and tropes to create a history of the jazz idiom. Mr. Marsalis opens with the slow funeral drums of New Orleans which quickly evolve into ragtime (quoting Tea for Two at one point) and paving the way for a breathy baritone sax solo. The orchestra and jazz band swing into "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" before winding up with a slam-bang New Orleans funeral that would make Ignatius Reilly quake in his yellow work boots. It's more like a mix tape played by musicians than a structured symphonic movement.

The middle movements of Swing Symphony are equally frustrating, in that they are built in various sections that introduce new chronological ideas but don't always sound musically connected. True, the funeral drum holds the work together, recurring in each movement, but that doesn't make up for the bizarre kaleidoscopic shifts between breathy torch songs, mambo and high-speed bebop. Solos for the principal players (including Mr. Marsalis) provide welcome musical escape rom the long passages of third stream sound, with both ensembles fighting to drown the other out in the overly bright acoustic of Avery Fisher Hall.

The symphony seems to find its voice in the last two movements, an exploration of modal and free jazz followed by a finale that tropes from Duke Ellington's major orchestral works. However, the total result, while virtuosically played, was less than thrilling. An encore followed, featuring Mr. Marsalis and his musicians in a display of instrumental ability and big-band swing. Freed of the constraints of his attempted classical excursion, the trumpeter sounded much more inspired.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.