Under the influence...
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
Boris Blacher : Orchestral Variations on a Theme by Paganini, op. 26
George Gershwin: Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra – Cuban Overture
Harry Lenk & Juan Tizol: Perdido (arr. Gerald Wilson)
Daniel Schnyder: UNITED: Symphony for Orchestra and Big Band (N.Y. Premiere)
William Wolfram (piano)
Temple University Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Band, Andreas Delfs and Terell Stafford (conductors)
W. Wolfram, A. Delfs (© Hiroyuki Ito/Temple University Symphony Orchestra)
It is a very rewarding experience for a reviewer to evaluate public performances by student orchestras, especially those that represent the leading music conservatories; nowadays one need not apply a lower standard when judging their skills, as they are usually amazingly high. Even more importantly one is almost invariably confronted with a level of enthusiasm that is rarely present among the musicians performing in the professional symphony orchestras night after night.
Such was also the case when on April 8th the Temple University Symphony Orchestra together with its Jazz Band arrived in New York for a concert presented at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Their program was composed of works that even in the most classical forms was heavily influenced either by jazz or by music that itself influenced this genre.
One would not expect it perhaps in the opening work on the program, the Orchestral Variations on a theme by Paganini (1947) by the German-Jewish composer Boris Blacher (1903-75), but even here several variations were jazz-inspired. Blacher’s Variations from the onset demonstrated a high level of performance skills from these young musicians. It is in a way a mini-concerto for orchestra, which illuminates either the separate sections or the solo instruments in a manner not all that different from another famous set of variations: Benjamin Britten’s Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra. The famous Paganini theme, his Caprice No. 24 – here shown first in its original version by Ms. Nina Vieru, the orchestra’s concertmistress – is sometimes clearly heard, and sometimes on hears only snippets of the theme or motifs which are richly woven into the orchestral canvas. When acquainting myself with the piece before the concert, I reached for an old recording conducted by a quite famous conductor with what is clearly considered to be a professional orchestra; it was made some five or six decades ago and now hearing it live “with the kids” made me again aware of the great leap that has been made in orchestral training. Today’s conservatory kids (forgive me for addressing those talented young men and women in somewhat paternal, though not patronizing terms) technically at least play like the pros from not that long ago. Good for them!
Next on the program was Gershwin Second Piano Rhapsody, much less popular and not as often performed as its older sister, the famous Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin was not quite sure how to name his piece which he initially called the Rivet Rhapsody (for the sounds we hear in the opening measures, which are supposed to exemplify the chaos of construction around the New York City). Later it was called the New York Rhapsody, then Manhattan Rhapsody, and finally the composer settled for the blander, generic title Second Rhapsody. Originally conceived as a musical segment for the movie Delicious, its length was reduced to a seven-minute sequence in the film. There are many explanations for the fact that this composition is far less frequently performed and some Gershwin scholars, such as Edward Jablonsky, defend the score calling it “much darker... fascinating... more modern than romantic”. Well, the piano certainly has some absorbing and demanding passages, plenty to do, and some interesting bravura moments. In my ears alas this Rhapsody always sounded like something “environmentally-oriented” by which I mean, delicately speaking, “recycled”. It is neither as coherent as its older sister, nor does it have too many ear-catching “tunes” that stick in the listener’s memory. Yet even second-rate, “somewhat-recycled” Gershwin is still very good and this time he was helped not only by a deft conductor with young, eager musicians as his charges but also by a brilliant American pianist William Wolfram, whose tall frame – well above six feet – brought to mind the famed Van Cliburn. Mr. Wolfram presented a performance that was technically super-polished, idiomatic and authoritative in style. As I was listening to his brilliant playing I thought that perhaps there are pianists who would play this Rhapsody equally well, but I couldn’t envision a much better presentation. Still, as I enjoyed this persuasive interpretation of a seldom heard score, I was reminded that sometimes there are reasons for which some compositions are performed less often than others.
The second half of the program saw the stage reconfigured as the two sections of musicians gathered to play: the traditional, classical orchestra shared the space with the Temple University Jazz Band, this time led by Terell Stafford. We heard some thrilling “big-band” sounds and terrific solos by its individual members. We were treated to one of the jazz standards Perdido popularized by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but offered here in an equally skillful arrangement by Gerald Wilson. Again, it was easy to forget that we were listening to college kids, as their expertise and skills were at a really professional level.
Before we heard the main composition of the concert which was the New York premiere and only the second ever performance of Daniel Schnyder’s UNITED: Symphony for Orchestra and Big Band (I suppose a work called simplyUnited would not sound as pleasing...), Mr. Delfs picked up the microphone and explained to the audience the intricacies of this 28-minute long composition. It was an informative and very witty presentation. Maestro Delfs pointed out his wife realized he had been wearing street shoes during the first half of the concert and had now dutifully switched to concert shoes; one had to laugh when he wryly said this would have a significant positive impact on the remaining performance. He explained that there are moments in the score that are written in the manner of a Baroque “concerto grosso,” juxtaposing the big band and the symphony orchestra.
Mr. Delfs also rightly observed – as we all saw with our own eyes – that the orchestra gathered for the UNITED Symphony was huge, and that there were a lot of saxophones not usually associated with a symphony orchestra... for “social reasons,” according to our charming and witty conductor. The first movement indeed was – as the composer describes it – a demonstration of different idioms associated with big band (and a little with symphonic composition), and the solo riffs played by the band members were attractive and energetic. At the same time it was relentless, with not much difference in color or orchestration. What Mr. Delfs didn’t mention was that in this symphony the movements follow each other uninterrupted thus the second one came after a very short transition. It finally gave some prominence to the strings which intoned a lyrical, lugubrious tune, one that would not be out of place in Shostakovich or closer to our time in Penderecki. That soon evolved into a tango-like tune, with much more chromatic and multi-layered texture, and with the double basses providing the rhythmic underpinning. The tension in the music increased... followed by a Scherzo, again without a break. It is an attractive, very skillfully written segment with harmonic language akin to Stravinsky exhibiting expert use of polyphony and elements of what sounded like ragtime. The last movement seamlessly followed in the typical mood of a big band: here again I felt there was not too much variety in the texture, beat, and musical material and/or interplay between classical and jazz. Yet it is an interesting, appealing score and I don’t doubt that other conservatories and music schools – providing they have such quality musicians at their disposal – will pick up UNITED to include in their repertory.
Our concert concluded with another Gershwin score, the Cuban Overture, a work this time inspired by the composer’s stay in Cuba in 1932 and his fascination with Cuban music. At the time percussion instruments such as bongo, claves, gourds, and maracas, were quite novel. So Gershwin incorporated them into this work. The Cuban Overture is attractive and ear-catching; if, in the Gershwin music catalogue, it is perhaps considered borderline top shelf, here we were treated to a rendition expertly and enthusiastically played by the young musicians. It was obvious from the first measures of the Blacher’s Variations that Temple University is lucky to have Mr. Delfs as Music Director of the Symphony Orchestra. Neither do I doubt that one day we will read the names of Mr. Delfs’ young charges on the rosters of major symphony orchestras.
Thus for some two hours we were all under the influence of jazz and the music that gave jazz its roots, built into an intriguing program and played really enthusiastically and well. I can think of worse ways to spend an evening...