03/19/2006

Musical confrontation: positive and negative

(Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra concert. Conductor: Michael Slon. Sat. Mar. 18, 2006)

The fourth concert of the 2005-2006 season featuring the works by John D'earth, Jazz trumpeter, composer, and a faculty member here at U.Va.

I was very eagerly looking forward to this particular concert since the season program was announced last year. After having heard that incredible suite by D'earth, "Natural Bridge" at the New Music Ensemble concert last month (see this post), my expectation grew even higher.

At the concert tonight, however, I experienced some negative as well as positive results of the audacious musical undertaking of fusioning Jazz and classical music.

I really don't know what to say about the "Blues for Orchestra," which started off the night. Maybe the orchestra wasn't in it quite yet, I don't know, but it didn't swing, and I couldn't catch the groove.

To be sure, the orchestra played the lines (more or less) perfectly, and D'earth's solo lines were quite beautifully improvised. But something wasn't in tune, as it were. The performance was unnatural, like someone speaking in a foreign languagewhose vocabulary and grammar she has learned quite well, but without ever visiting a country in which it is speken. The inexplicable part of the music that is not on the sheet--that's what swings, really--was missing. Each movement of the piece itself was quite crisp and short, which made it hard, it seemed, to get into the right feeling before it ends.

The second piece, "Concerto for Quintet and Orchestra," commissioned by Carl Roskott and premiered tonight, was much much better. Harmonic beauty and stylistic elegance had some delightful moments where one hears something truly new. The orchestra began to swing, and the two musics merged into one. The arrangement was superb. The "classical" instruments were really well integrated into the piece, now fiddling some jazz up and down, now laying a nice accompanying harmony on which the solo instruments--the quintet--improvised.

My overall feeling is that it's very very difficult for an orchestra to swing with be-bop lines, although it may well do in some other basic jazz rhythms, such as bossa and other latin patterns. Perhaps the problem is physical. Because even the smallest symphony orchestra has so many players, the unison part would inevitably sounded like they are playing some kind of peculiar etudes, not jazz lines.

Still, I enjoyed very much the solo parts of the concerto--taken by a number of instruments, quite like the manner of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra. As well as the absolutely virtuous dialogue between drums (Robert Jospé) and marimba (I-Jen Fang, who reminded me, of course, of Gary Burton), the part played together by the piano (Bob Jallahan) and the harp (Emily Ricks)--really an incredible combination--which introduced the second movement, a jazz ballad titled "Certain Flowers Persist," was breathtaking.

Another very difficult challenge, both in the first and the second piece, was acoustic. The balance of the sound. I wonder why D'earth did not come out in front and play as a concerto soloist does: he should have. He sat in the midst of the orchestra, probably along with other trumpet members (I was in the orchestra circle so I couldn't see).

Even more difficult was, it seemed, reconciling a jazz quintet with a symphony orchestra. The quintet was situated in the back, on a sub-stage that placed four of them (except the piano) a couple of feet above the rest of the orchestra. This worked, I think, but only to a certain extent. Where I was sitting wasn't probably good (at the extreme right of the orchestra circle, where right in front of my eyes were the first violins). As a result, sometimes sax and piano were quite hard to hear, and other times the cymbal from the drums came too strongly over the strings.

The stage in the Old Cabel Hall is not very big one, so that was I suppose the best positioning they could have come up with. Using microphones and speakers might have been considered, but in that case certain unwanted alteration of the sound quality would become inevitable (and also controling the PA system would be extremely delicate and difficult).

So there were positive and negative effects. But what I listened was all the same an amazing and novel attempt at artistic creation.

The second half of the concert was Prokofiev's 5th symphony in b flat major, op.100, with which I wasn't familiar at all. I think I should listen more works by him, whose compositions seem to be a favorite of whoever's choosing the program (probably Roskott). He's also performed very often by Lorin Mazaal, my most favorite conductor.

This symphony is very difficult. It requires a lot of energy to listen to. There's something uncontrollably tremendous about it, perhaps related to the fact that it was composed in 1944, although it has nothing directly to do with the war propaganda.

The structure (formal) retains the established elements of the 19th century, but the tonal modifications and the melodic coherence at a global level are very complex, resulting in a fascinating tension characteristic of the composer. It's all so romantic, which is what keeps me from listening him, yet (because?) it's so humane.

I particularly liked the third movement, Adagio, which contrasts with the directly preceding movement, which is an agile and light scherzo. The heaviness of this slow movement is really incredible. Here, every longing harmony has certain fear, every resting melody conceals a disquietude, every leap is doomed by gravity, every beauty knows its own shadow.

And how "at home" the orchestra was in performing this piece, despite the fact it also has many tricky phrases and harmonies. They followed the notes just as perfectly as they did in the first half of the concert, but this time they sounded "right." They were speaking in their mother tongue.

So there were quite few interesting points that can be made out from the programme, which seemed a little odd at the first sight (21th century Jazz/Classical fusion paired with a Prokofiev?). But what, after all, really ties the concert up is the sense of aesthetic innovation and incessant passion for creating.

posted by Yuuki at 14:37 | Comment(0) | TrackBack(0) | On Art
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