[JPL] A Diplomatic Encounter Between Jazz and Classical

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Tue Jul 13 15:11:14 EDT 2004

A Diplomatic Encounter Between Jazz and Classical

July 13, 2004

Picture the familiar photographs of presidential encounters
with foreign leaders: the handshake, the fixed smiles, the
platitudes. There's a certain protocol that kicks in when
two cultures are forcibly brought together. But what's said
at such meetings isn't really the point of the exercise; at
best, you get a few stilted words in the other's language.
The real meat of the encounter, if there is any, is hidden
behind closed doors, away from the flashing cameras. 

Cameras certainly flashed on Friday night at the opening of
Tanglewood, and two cultures came together in a piece that,
like a state meeting, was a wonderful political gesture:
Wynton Marsalis's "All Rise," written for combined jazz and
classical orchestras, which had its premiere at the New
York Philharmonic in 1999. It's great when an orchestra
commissions an evening-length work, rather than a 10-minute
one, from a living composer. It's great when the people who
first championed the piece continue to support and perform
it after its premiere (Kurt Masur, the commissioning
conductor, led the Boston Symphony and Lincoln Center Jazz
Orchestras). And it's great to see symphony orchestras
trying to reach out and open themselves up to other

Politically, then, the evening was a success. But works of
art are also measured by their content. And for all the
great, evident aspirations of "All Rise" to serve as a
profound testimony to human experience, cradle to grave, it
was (like so many state encounters) a rather one-sided

When the jazz orchestra had a chance to show its stuff - as
it did for long stretches, particularly in the last 4 of
the work's 12 movements - the piece came alive. But when
the regular orchestra and chorus entered the picture, they
did so rather stiffly, articulating little bursts of
not-very-meaningful sound (even though Mr. Marsalis almost
certainly had help with his orchestration, the orchestral
writing was along the careful, elementary lines of
"avez-vous la plume de ma tante?"). The classical artists
came off as awkward and even nerdy, despite Mr. Masur's
best efforts to cast off his aura of gravitas and to
groove. The overall message was subversive, especially in
the hallowed classical groves of Tanglewood: a jazz
ensemble is cooler than a symphony orchestra. 

That's not news. It also isn't news that Leon Fleisher can
play the devil out of Ravel's piano concerto for the left
hand, which opened the concert on Saturday night. If you
were seeking connections, you could discern a jazz link
between the evenings, since the concerto has a few jazzlike
musings. But the effect was more one of thesis and
antithesis, particularly since the orchestra was speaking
fluently and at considerable length in its own language on
Saturday, like a politician following a diplomatic
encounter with a prolix lecture analyzing the situation.
This particular analysis showed the Boston Symphony in
quite good shape, despite the excesses of both Rafael
Frühbeck de Burgos, the conductor, and Ravel himself in
"Daphnis and Chloé," a fulsome, even blowsy Romantic score,
with choral inserts lending an overtone of film music to
the proceedings. 

Sunday afternoon was indeed a kind of synthesis, in that it
showed representatives of two different cultures - Mozart
and Shostakovich - each working masterfully in his own
idiom with a symphony orchestra. Late Mozart - the final
piano concerto, lissomely played by Emmanuel Ax, and the
"Magic Flute" overture - was juxtaposed with early
Shostakovich: his ferociously precocious first symphony had
its premiere when he was 20. 

The German conductor Ingo Metzmacher, who made his
Tanglewood debut the week before with the student
orchestra, showed a slightly exaggerated public manner
himself, overconducting simple phrases and notably failing
to achieve clean entrances on a number of occasions. But he
also allowed some fine things to happen in the orchestra:
lovely liquid smoothness from the strings in the piano
concerto; playing at once sensitive and forceful in the
Shostakovich, which just before its close held its breath
in a wonderful timpani solo, dying away to almost nothing
before the rest of the instruments came flooding back to
fill the void. 



Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
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