Wynton Marsalis Lets the Orchestra Shine in His Violin Concerto

A new recording captures this 2015 work, which doesn’t depend on the presence of him or his jazz colleagues.

At the turn of the 21st century, Wynton Marsalis was busy.

In 1999 alone, two years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his oratorio “Blood on the Fields,” this jazz trumpeter and composer put out 10 different albums, one of them an eight-hour-plus live box set. His first symphonic composition, “All Rise,” was released in 2002, in a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Mr. Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

But over the following decade, even casual fans would have noticed a slowdown. Mr. Marsalis was still active, premiering and refining works like the “Swing Symphony” and “The Jungle.” But the faltering record industry was no longer keeping pace with his pen. Sony put out compilations of existing pieces in 2012 and ’13, but no new music.

“It’s gotten thin, man — the higher levels of our thing,” Mr. Marsalis, 57, said in an interview at Jazz at Lincoln Center. “It’s not what I would have thought when I was 20, to be honest.”

The drought began to ease in 2015, with the founding of Blue Engine Records, an in-house label for Jazz at Lincoln Center. And this year is already overflowing, with Blue Engine’s potent release of Mr. Marsalis’s “Swing Symphony” (featuring David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra) as well as his score for the film “Bolden” and an album inspired by visual artists, “Jazz and Art.” (Blue Engine has ambitious plans to release 100 albums, by Mr. Marsalis and others, over the course of five years.)

And Blue Engine isn’t the only way to hear Mr. Marsalis’s latest music. A recording of his 2015 Violin Concerto, performed by Nicola Benedetti and the Philadelphia Orchestra, is also out this summer from the Decca label, representing Mr. Marsalis’s return to a major classical imprint.

The release, which also includes Mr. Marsalis’s “Fiddle Dance Suite,” is something of a turning point in his orchestral catalog, since it does not depend on his presence as a player — or even that of his Jazz at Lincoln Center colleagues, as on the “Swing Symphony.”

Still, when I first listened to the Violin Concerto album, I nevertheless experienced one of those shivers of recognition that occurs when you re-encounter a familiar presence in a sharp new guise. In four movements and 43 minutes, here is a portrait of a composer in a variety of moods, rambunctious as well as intimate — a mixture handled, and integrated, with the same mastery as in his early-1990s septet music. (Check out at least the last two discs of the “Live at the Village Vanguard” box set.)

Ms. Benedetti’s playing embodies this range. “In this concerto, she’s a bard,” Mr. Marsalis said. “They come, and they go.”

The first movement features Romantic flourishes in the orchestra, as well as modernist 20th-century-style textures. But it’s not all about boldness: There’s captivating delicacy in the ninth minute of the first movement, as the Duke Ellington-influenced woodwind texture trails off, making way for the entry of the harp and high-flying tones from Ms. Benedetti.

“That’s one of my favorite moments,” Ms. Benedetti said in a telephone interview. “A few friends of mine who are musicology types have asked to see the score, and studied it a little bit. It’s those kinds of things that have been fascinations to them: where texture becomes 100 percent different, but the material — or the harmonic progression, or the way an arpeggio is spaced — is 100 percent related. It fills you with a lot of wonderment.”

With Mr. Marsalis, I brought up a bombastic orchestral chord that appears earlier in that first movement. When I ventured a point of comparison — Bartok’s jagged and majestic “Miraculous Mandarin” — Mr. Marsalis said, casually, “You know, that was my favorite, when I was in high school.”

The Violin Concerto bears other traces of his long and eclectic musical career. The third movement includes yawping blues accents that the Philadelphia brass section handles with raucous facility. (“Man, they wanted to play it,” Mr. Marsalis said, “and they were handling their business.”) And the final movement has a celebratory air that evokes country fiddling as well as Leonard Bernstein.

Mr. Marsalis recalled auditioning 40 years ago for the composer and conductor Gunther Schuller — renowned for his “third stream” style, combining jazz and classical approaches — for a prestigious spot at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home and academy in the Berkshires. He got it, and played there with Bernstein.

His reverence for both figures was clear. “We could go at it, philosophically,” he said of arguments with Mr. Schuller about developments in jazz. “But the depth of his understanding, his love for music and his respect for it and his patience with listening to it — and the weight of who he was as a scholar and a great French horn player, it was crucial to my musical development.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “we don’t do a good job of expressing the depth of the collegiality of the relationships across generations.”

It was an interesting comment, given critiques that have come Mr. Marsalis’s way as the leader of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the programming has, according to some observers, been focused too single-mindedly on the music’s early inventors — at the inevitable expense of later innovators.

In recent years, though, there have been instances in which contemporary experimentalists have been welcomed. The pathbreaking composer and improviser Wadada Leo Smith played Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this year. And Myra Melford, a pianist most often heard in avant-garde spaces, was a featured soloist on a recent Blue Engine release. (You can hear Mr. Marsalis fully engaged as a player during an ensemble performance of Ms. Melford’s “The Strawberry,” arranged by Ted Nash.)

Mr. Marsalis lavished praise on his classical collaborators, like Ms. Benedetti and the conductor Cristian Macelaru, who conducts the Philadelphians in the concerto recording, for facilitating his continued growth. He added that he hopes “to develop the humility, as I grow older, to gain more insights when studying.”

Still, he said, he felt confident in his abilities. After years of dissatisfaction with another orchestral work — his “Blues Symphony” — he says he’s learned from the experience.

“It wasn’t played a lot, justifiably,” he said. “But I looked at the score — and I studied it, and what I needed to do better. And how to become better through it.”

Up next for Mr. Marsalis is a planned tuba concerto, as well as the release of a revised “Blues Symphony” and “The Jungle” — another fervid symphonic piece that uses Jazz at Lincoln Center players — on Blue Engine.

“We’ve got a lot more,” he said. “They’re lined up.”

And regarding potential listeners? “The audience is broad, it’s varied, and it’s hip,” he said. “We just have to not speak down to them.”

by Seth Colter Walls
Source: The New York Times

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