Jammin’ with the CSO

From the moment Daniel Barenboim stepped up to the podium, it was clear that musical conventions were about to be incinerated.

Rather than pick up his baton and signal a downbeat for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as he does each week in Symphony Center, the maestro turned around, faced the audience and began to speak directly to the crowd. With this simple gesture, he had shattered a wall of silence that separates musicians and listeners at most symphony concerts. But this was only the beginning.

“Duke Ellington didn’t just `jazz up’ Grieg’s `Peer Gynt,’ “ said Barenboim, by way of introducing the unusual jazz-meets-the-classics program he was about to conduct. “Ellington transformed the music, from 19th Century Europe to 20th Century America. He made Grieg’s music into something new, but he preserved the spirit of the original. That is the genius of this transformation.”

For the next 2 1/2 hours, Barenboim and friends offered a case study not only in how art perpetually evolves, but in how it must do so to survive. Moreover, Symphony Center itself was transformed—the temple of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms began to swing.

By concert’s end, some of Chicago’s most esteemed symphony musicians would be joyously riffing on music of Ellington, not a note of it written down, every phrase freely and exuberantly created on the spot.

The occasion was an unorthodox series of CSO subscription concerts that dared to turn the traditional symphonic format on its ear. Barenboim acknowledged as much when he told the crowd a week ago Saturday, “We are not going to do the usual program, where you have a short piece to start, followed by a piano concerto or a violin concerto, then a contemporary piece where everyone in the audience looks at his watch, and then a symphony of Mozart or Beethoven.”

Instead, Barenboim’s CSO would perform portions of Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” suite (based on the composer’s incidental music to Henrik Ibsen’s play). After each movement, Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra would offer an alternate, jazz-swing version of the same vignette, scored by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

Considering that the two versions of “Peer Gynt” were written on different continents and in different centuries (Grieg’s in 1870s Norway, Ellington-Strayhorn’s in 1960s United States), the performance theoretically could illuminate the way artists reinvent a work of art—and, for that matter, an art form—for changing times and settings.

Even before the concert, however, the crowd had been prepared for something new. “I had told the audience that they didn’t need to sit quietly in their seats,” explained Jazz at Lincoln Center executive director Rob Gibson, who had given a lecture before each of the CSO’s all-Ellington subscription concerts. “I told them they could stand up, applaud, shout, dance in the aisles, whatever they needed to do to express themselves.”

The distinctions between the jazz and classical scores were subtle at first, but by the time the musicians arrived at the “Anitra’s Dance” movement, the contrasts between European and American culture hardly could have been more palpably clear. The graceful waltz movement of Grieg’s version had been answered by the combustive swing rhythms of the Ellington-Strayhorn score; the sweetly lilting strings that defined Grieg’s work had been supplanted by Ellington’s thundering brass and reed choirs.

In the process, Grieg’s original melody had been changed only slightly, yet sounded radically new because it was wearing a fresh suit of clothes, as well as the attitudes that went with them. The quaint, 19th Century frock had been replaced by the hipster’s garb; the polite and somewhat stuffy manners of Old Europe had been cast aside for the unpretentious, as-you-are manner of modern America.

To anyone familiar with these scores, the contrasts were not surprising, but reactions of CSO subscribers must have startled even Barenboim and the small army of musicians on stage with him. As soon as the Lincoln Center band launched into its propulsive “Anitra’s Dance,” you could hear a buzz in the audience, as if a jolt of electricity had shot from the bell of the horns to the listeners and back. When the band had swung out on its last chorus of “Anitra’s Dance,” the roar of the crowd was bigger, louder and more ecstatic than anything this listener had heard in the venerable old hall in years.

Why the eruption? Perhaps because anyone who has grown up in the United States—classical music fan or not—is at least unconsciously acquainted with the swing rhythms and blue-note melodies that define American jazz. They’re constantly in the air, whether in TV ads for sports cars or as background music in film noir or on the pages of mysteries by Raymond Chandler.

All the more in a city such as Chicago, where Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton first attained national fame, where Joe Williams and Nat “King” Cole learned how to sing and where young musicians from around the world still come to learn to swing.

So when Marsalis and his supercharged jazz band ripped into “Anitra’s Dance,” CSO subscribers responded to more than Grieg’s familiar tune. Surely they recognized themselves and their home-grown culture in the Ellington- Strayhorn score and responded no differently than when the home team appears on the basketball court.

Was Grieg spinning in his Norwegian grave as his exquisite score was transformed for a new place and time? He needn’t worry. His “Peer Gynt” endures as an enchanting portrait of its epoch, just as the Ellington-Strayhorn version represents 20th Century America in all its vigor, energy and drive. Each score has its place, but it should come as no surprise that the contemporary version receives the most enthusiastic response from modern listeners.

Art, in other words, flourishes best when it confronts the present rather than the past, the “here and now” rather than the “there and then.” That’s why Leonard Bernstein created a sensation with the jazzy musical “West Side Story,” a 1950s retelling of Shakespeare’s centuries-old “Romeo and Juliet”; why George Gershwin became an overnight star applying jazz rhythms to the spirit of the European piano concerto in “Rhapsody in Blue”; why Antonin Dvorak achieved his most famous work when he embraced the Negro spiritual in his “New World” Symphony No. 9; why rap performers “sample” the recordings of everyone from Marvin Gaye to John Lewis; why ’70s disco artists made a fortune reworking Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as “A Fifth of Beethoven” and Moussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as “Night on Disco Mountain.”

The results may be moving or mediocre, but artists reach listeners most effectively by developing their themes in up-to-date terms.

In the case of the Barenboim-Marsalis concerts, the worlds of classical and jazz music converged to extraordinary effect because each had superior material to work with: Grieg’s colorful score was re-imagined by jazz composers who were at least his equals, and the Symphony Center audience responded accordingly to a brilliant, distinctly American score.

As if to emphasize the point, Barenboim, Marsalis and even violinist Itzhak Perlman (who dropped in on Saturday night’s proceedings) closed the evening with a freewheeling jam session of a sort rarely encountered in any symphony hall. To hear these musicians, as well as members of the CSO and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra improvising on Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues” and Johnny Hodges’ “Squatty Roo” was to witness the American jazz tradition virtually taking over the stage.

A hundred years from now, some other group of musicians will be transforming tunes of Ellington in a new, still-to-be-invented musical language. The audience probably will leap to its feet, as the Symphony Center crowd did, at the prospect of hearing Ellington refreshed for the late 21st Century.

That will be neither an offense to Ellington nor a sacrilege on the part of the musicians involved. It’s simply the way art evolves, reflecting the real lives of the people to whom it speaks.

So long as the music-making is top-notch, the stylistic idiom is utterly beside the point.

Or as Ellington himself once said, “If it sounds good, it’s good music, and if it doesn’t, then it is the other kind.”

by Howard Reich
Source: Chicago Tribune

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