Sunday, June 02, 2013

Jazz night at the New York Philharmonic

Three years ago, the New York Philharmonic premiered Wynton Marsalis's Swing Symphony on opening night and I wrote about it in my review of that concert. My memory must be going in my old age, because I remembered little about watching that concert on TV other than thinking the piece was good but nothing remarkable. When I saw tonight's concert on my schedule, featuring a variety of jazz and jazz-like pieces by Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Copland along with Marsalis's work, I thought that it would be great to see Mark Nuccio (acting principal clarinet) play the Copland Clarinet Concerto and that the Marsalis piece would be interesting to hear live. But that was it. I wasn't prepared for just how much I'd enjoy actually hearing the work in person.

The concert opened with Igor Stravinsky's Ragtime for 11 instruments, which sounded like a Scott Joplin piece as translated by a Russian living in Paris writing avant-garde music at the end of the First World War. I liked the odd twangy sound of the cimbalom, not a typical orchestral instrument but one that fit right in with Stravinsky's unique sound. Next came Dmitri Shostakovich's Tahiti Trot, a piece that we would better know as "Tea For Two." There were some giggles from the audience as the familiar melody passed from one group of instruments to the other, from harp and celeste to winds to brass to strings and finally to the whole orchestra in unison. Assistant Conductor Case Scaglione was right at home running the orchestra through these two vastly different yet similarly jazzy works.

Mark Nuccio took the stage for Aaron Copland's Concerto for Clarinet and Strings, composed in 1950 for Benny Goodman. His playing was sublime, tender and fluid in the first movement and fast and furious in the frenetic second movement. Alan Gilbert did a fine job of managing the orchestra in the first movement though I wished the strings could have been softer in the second movement so that the rapid-fire notes of the clarinet would have come through more clearly.

Wynton Marsalis's Swing Symphony was the featured work on the second half of the program. It took a few extra minutes to get the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra all set up. They occupied the middle of the stage, with saxophones, trombones and trumpets, plus upright bass, piano and drums, with the rest of the orchestra surrounding them. There was a larger than usual battery of percussion at the back of the stage, and throughout the piece the Philharmonic percussion section made full use of it. Marsalis balanced the jazz orchestra's involvement with the rest of the orchestra. There were sections that only involved the jazz musicians taking solos, and in other places they sat while the Philharmonic played. But most of the work had both groups playing together, bouncing melodies off each other and sharing lines. Oboes picked up a fugal subject that the solo clarinetist in the band introduced. Concertmaster Glen Dicterow took a solo turn, as did principal cellist Carter Brey. And each member of the jazz orchestra got a chance to show their talents, including Mr. Marsalis, which had me sitting in my seat thinking "that's Wynton freaking Marsalis playing in the same room as me!!" Yes, I was more than a little excited by this piece. My favorite parts were the Philharmonic percussionists in their white ties and tails, playing bongos, Cuban rhythms on drums, or just clapping rhythmically in places. You don't know what you're missing until you've seen the Philharmonic timpanist put down his mallets and clap along with the other members of the percussion section. I think the Swing Symphony works much better as a live concert piece than as a recording or on video, but I would love to hear the piece again, even recorded, just to hear what I might have missed.

The seven movements of the work (expanded from the five performed on opening night in 2010 to include more recent jazz elements) took the listener through the entire history of jazz, from ragtime and New Orleans to the big band sound of the '40s to bebop and Coltrane and modern jazz. And the conceit worked extremely well. I could imagine that I was in a New Orleans bar, then a jazz club in the Village, then (of all things) a big band concert back home in Johnstown, PA. The audience applauded at the end of each movement, and it didn't seem at all unusual for a concert like that. The spirit of jazz seemed to have taken hold of everyone in the room. I listened to most of the piece with a huge smile on my face, enjoying every minute. Mr. Gilbert appeared to be enjoying himself as well, smiling when he made a cue or started another section with a new jaunty tempo. The members of the jazz orchestra, dressed in suits and long ties as opposed to the Philharmonic in their tuxedoes, had their own ways of communicating with each other. They whispered to each other during the piece and Mr. Marsalis occasionally leaned over to groove along with his drummer. At the end of the piece both Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Marsalis received long, loud ovations from the audience, as did the jazz orchestra. The jazz group favored us with an encore, which started with a solo from Mr. Marsalis followed by each member of the group. When the bass player finished his solo he gestured toward the Philharmonic's bass section. We couldn't tell what was going on at first, but then one of the Philharmonic's bassists did his own pizzicato solo. This led to a few minutes of dueling bass solos between the jazz orchestra's bassist and the Philharmonic's bassist. I haven't seen anything like that since the last time I was in New Orleans, and that's not even close to the same thing.

It was quite possibly the most fun I've had at the New York Philharmonic in years, and I always enjoy the concertgoing experience there. I haven't seen an audience reaction to a piece like that in a long time. It's so exciting to see that. We're going back at the end of the month for two Stravinsky ballets (with the help of the geniuses at Giants Are Small) and we can't wait to see what the Philharmonic has in store then.

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