Gilbert, Philharmonic explore New York states of mind with Marsalis premiere, Copland and Bolcom

Thu Dec 29, 2016 at 6:43 pm
Wynton Marsalis's "The Jungle'" (Symphony No. 4) was given its world premiere Wednesday night by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

Wynton Marsalis’s “The Jungle'” (Symphony No. 4) was given its world premiere Wednesday night by Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

On the classical music scene, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is invariably full of seasonal music and light classics; innocuous programming for crowds made weary by food, family, and the stunned realization of how much money they’ve just spent.

But Wednesday night, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic snuck a surprising and rousing program of modern and contemporary American music into David Geffen Hall. There was a substantial crowd on hand, clearly primed for the headliner, the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle (Symphony No. 4).

The first half of the concert was a welcome opportunity to hear three of the orchestra’s principal players in music from two of the country’s finest composers: trumpeter Christopher Martin and English hornist Grace Shryock were out front for Copland’s Quiet City, and Joseph Alessi soloed in William Bolcom’s Trombone Concerto.

Martin has already made a big impression in his first season as principal trumpet, and Quiet City deepened this feeling. His full, round tone and sculpted, effortless articulation brought out the last measure of simple beauty in Copland’s score. Shryock played with a loamy, velvety tone in her solo debut. Pitches and timbres elided perfectly between the two soloists and the orchestra as the atmospheric waves of the music rose and fell.

Composers talk about how getting a second performance is so much harder than the first. It’s a cliché that softens the hard truth—second performances of new pieces are notoriously difficult to engage and that much more valuable.

So William Bolcom, who was in the hall, must have been that much more heartened that the Philharmonic was giving his Trombone Concerto a second go-round, just six months after the Philharmonic’s world premiere performances, which also featured Alessi.

Familiarity for the listener, and more importantly the musicians, meant a sense of comfort that emphasized the formal and expressive abundance in the music. The trombone’s lines oppose the fractured chorales interspersed through the first movement, and lead the music along. Bolcom’s melodies are characteristically graceful, and in the Trombone Concerto he subtly interweaves fragments of the solo part into the orchestra’s accompaniment.

The second movement “Blues” came off as more natural, soulful, and songful than at the premiere. It sounded like an aria for trombone, with Alessi’s strong, mellow tone the classic lonely voice amid the crowd of the city. His playing, and that of the Philharmonic, was full of warmth and meaning, and this second experience showed music that is full of charm, strangeness, and beauty. This is a major addition to the concerto literature.

Although this was the world premiere of Marsalis’s new symphony, the piece was incomplete—the orchestra didn’t play the first of the six movements and there was no explanation why Wednesday night. One might anticipate a second premiere of the complete work, because although it has weaknesses, the symphony is packed with engrossing and affecting music.

In his program note, Marsalis described The Jungle as a depiction of the intense hard work and glories of life in New York City, and placed himself on a lineage that begins with Dvorak and flows through Gershwin, Ellington, Bernstein, and Gunther Schuller. Marsalis’ innovation was to compose the music (a Philharmonic commission) both for the classical orchestra and the Jazz At Lincoln Center orchestra.

The musical antecedents were a prominent feature from the start of movement II, “The Big Show,” which drops us into the urbanity of Gershwin and Ellington. This was in no way derivative—Marsalis is an advocate for the value of specific historical styles, and his composing is a direct expression of that. The symphony maintained an assured balance on the razor-fine line between cliché and freshness.

There were long gorgeous, poignant stretches, notably in movement III, “Lost in Sight (Post-Pastoral).” The writing spun out wonderful melodies and evocative harmonies with the mid-century flavor of Bernstein and David Amram.

The duration and substance of that slow movement dominated the entire performance, which was also a formal problem. With another long—and excellent—slow movement, “Us,” fourth in line, the symphony felt misshapen. The slow music was also superior; inventive, structured, and with a sense of direction.
In contrast, fast movements like “La Esquina” (number IV), and the final “Struggle in the Digital Market” had exciting stretches, but also spun out notes while they searched for a purpose. His more complex rhythms, especially the Latin ones, were often ungainly, even as played by the JALC musicians. Yet, to his credit, Marsalis’s integration of classical and jazz idioms was as seamless as it comes.

With the JALC in the middle of the stage surrounded by the Philharmonic, the stage arrangement hinted at tantalizing and unrealized possibilities. There was the hint that simultaneous musics might break out, adding Ives to the rest of Marsalis’ forbears. That manner of music-making would also have been absolutely appropriate for a work depicting New York, and would have elevated the musical drama to the same heights as the pictorial narrative.

But in this case pointing out how the music stimulated the imagination credits the experience of hearing the passion, wit, humanity, and sheer beauty in the symphony. With terrific playing from the orchestras, wonderful solos from oboist Liang Wang and cellist Carter Brey, and deep, thoughtful improvisations from JALC reed player Walter Blanding, The Jungle mixed considerable power and pleasure.

The audience demanded an encore, and the JALC orchestra obliged with Ellington’s “C Jam Blues.” The jazz players graciously gave over several choruses to Alessi, before swinging into their own comments on great American music.

This program will be elected 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 3.

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