At Philharmonic, Jazz Blended Unevenly

(Wynton Marsalis, on trumpet, in his “Swing Symphony” at Avery Fisher Hall. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times)

What better way to open an orchestra’s new season than with a new piece? That was Alan Gilbert’s reasoning last September, when he inaugurated his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic with the premiere of “EXPO,” an exciting work by Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic’s composer in residence.

On Wednesday night at Avery Fisher Hall, Mr. Gilbert began his second season at the helm of the Philharmonic. Again the program, broadcast on PBS’s “Live From Lincoln Center,” began with a premiere, this time of a sprawling new score by Wynton Marsalis, “Swing Symphony” (Symphony No. 3), written for and performed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Philharmonic.

This was actually the American premiere. The piece was jointly commissioned by the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Barbican in London. The first performance took place recently in Berlin. Still, an American premiere counts as new. And sharing is a good thing, especially in recessionary times.

Mr. Marsalis has described “Swing Symphony” as a symphonic meditation on the evolution of swing. The concept had great potential and possible pitfalls, and Mr. Marsalis’s piece both fulfilled some of the potential and succumbed to some of the pitfalls. The five movements of this 45-minute work evoke, pay homage to and juxtapose styles of jazz and pop: ragtime, mambo, bebop, black American church music. And bringing the 15 virtuosos of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, including Mr. Marsalis, together with the players of the Philharmonic was, in theory, an inspiring idea.

Still, during long stretches the music, as orchestrated here, hovered uneasily in some middle ground, sounding at times like a jazz ensemble beefed up with an orchestra and at other times like an orchestra jolted by jazz. Though it made acoustic and dramatic sense to place the jazz musicians in the center of the stage, surrounded by the Philharmonic players, this enhanced the impression that the jazz artists were more of a solo ensemble than true collaborators. I liked the piece best whenever Mr. Marsalis worked hard to blend the two instrumental contingents and when the music seemed not just a homage to old jazz styles but a transformed synthesis, something fresh, subtle and startling.

Actually, there are six movements to this symphony. But at the Berlin premiere the piece lasted nearly an hour. The Philharmonic had commissioned a score of about 40 minutes or so, since the gala was being televised and had to clock in under two hours. So one movement was dropped for this occasion, the only performance of the work this season. (Next season the entire piece will be performed in a subscription series program.)

The first movement, “St. Louis to New Orleans,” builds quickly into a growling, organic blast from the joint forces. Then the music segues smoothly into a perky, syncopated march. But Mr. Marsalis lays things on thick. The textures were sometimes so dense that the chords were indistinct and lost their punch. I was relieved when the second movement, “All-American Pep,” a homage to early-20th-century pop music, began, because the textures thinned out and you could hear many more of the music’s nuances and intricacies. Riffs and bits of tunes are tossed from section to section of the orchestra; the music is scored with clarity and, at times, welcome delicacy. In a captivating episode for solo baritone saxophone — played here by Joe Temperley, a master — a sensual, unabashedly romantic melody is cushioned by pungent string chords.

“Midwestern Moods,” the third movement, had engrossing moments, especially a mellow episode for subdued yet restless strings backing up solo turns by the jazz musicians. “Manhattan to L.A.” pulses with rippling bebop. “The Low Down Up On High,” the finale, flows with muted brasses and woodwinds, like bittersweet gospel. A hymnlike section featuring the five saxophones ushers in the surprise ending, where the music just slips away.

Mr. Marsalis is a staggeringly talented musician and a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer.

Still, just evoking older styles of music, however astutely and sensitively, seemed not enough. You could have believed that this work was from, say, 1959 and had been introduced by Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Gilbert seemed totally in his element, conducting with a mix of cool command and jazzy swing. The Philharmonic players should be proud. They played with verve and color, never sounding like classical music stiffs. Quite a few players looked as if they were enjoying themselves immensely, as did members of the audience, which gave Mr. Marsalis and the musicians a standing ovation. I have never seen so many people at a Philharmonic concert tapping their feet and hands. And this time it was entirely appropriate, not at all a distraction.

After intermission, the program became like an entirely different concert. Mr. Gilbert led a blazing, rhapsodic and impressively lucid account of Strauss’s voluptuous tone poem “Don Juan.”

He ended with a work that the Philharmonic introduced in 1944, Hindemith’s “Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber.” Once a staple, this piece does not turn up that often these days. The title may sound a little convoluted, but it describes what goes on. Hindemith borrowed obscure tunes from Weber and, in a true metamorphosis, generated a delightful, dazzling and ingenious four-movement symphonic suite. The score proves that sometimes a tune is just a little thing a composer can use to get a piece going.

Mr. Gilbert and the Philharmonic played it to the hilt. The Hindemith and Strauss works will be repeated as part of the Philharmonic’s first subscription program through Tuesday at Avery Fisher Hall. There will also be a work by Dutilleux and Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman, no less, as soloist.

by Anthony Tommasini
Source: New York Times

« Previous Entry

Next Entry »