Last night, thanks to the generosity of Washington Performing Arts, DC audiences had the rare opportunity to see Wynton Marsalis in the fullest sense – as consummate performer, as bandleader, and as composer of a new symphony that premiered at The Music Center in Strathmore.
Under the more than capable direction of conductor Jan Wagner, Marsalis debuted his Blues Symphony last night in a performance with the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra, the culmination of his semester long residency at Shenandoah University as part of Washington Performing Arts’ “The Art of the Orchestra Series.”
Blues Symphony was composed in six movements as a celebration of the blues, heard through moments in African-American history. The symphony reflects Marsalis’ expertise in and passion for blues, jazz, and other traditional American music. According to Marsalis, it also culminated in a bet. Can a symphony orchestra groove?
The answer is a resounding yes. In the hands of Wagner and his passionately committed and youthful musicians, Blues Symphony grooved.
The complexity of the piece is staggering, but it works because Wagner and the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra clearly put in the time and commitment to uncover the nuances of the piece and to tell the story with zeal.
Each of the six movements in the newly revised and complete version of Blues Symphony tells part of a story. From the first movement, which opens with piccolo (beautifully played by Katelyn Kaiser) and drum to signify the American Revolution and the possibility of the blues, to the sixth and final movement, which fuses circus waltzes, parlor music, Ragtime, and New Orleans jazz, the audience experienced what happens when passions collide – in this case the passions of Marsalis, Wagner, and the orchestra.
Blues Symphony contains some lovely musical gems. In the third movement, a male-female dialogue between violin and cello (gorgeously executed by Jingjing Nie and Michael Puryear) leads to the culmination of Marsalis’ bet where the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra let loose and nailed the groove of the mambo.
As a New York City girl, my favorite movement was the fourth, a tribute to Manhattan. From Latin jazz to bebop drums to traffic sounds, this movement was a fun Valentine to the rhythms that drive the city. The fifth movement included a moving tribute to the American Negro spiritual, as well as a fun interpretation of shuffle grooves (I particularly liked the “cowboy” and “train” grooves) and some smoking improvised solos from Erin Riley on a swinging viola and Nathan Davis on a smooth and sultry trombone.
The work of Jan Wagner and the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra in bringing composer Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony to life in the second half of the program nearly eclipsed the rollicking work of Wynton Marsalis the band leader and virtuoso trumpet player in the first half of the program – no easy task.
The first half of the program featured the electrifying Wynton Marsalis Quintet. Seldom have I been an audience member at a performance where the musicians were clearly having as much fun as the audience.
Each member of the Quintet – Marsalis on trumpet, Walter Blanding on tenor and soprano saxophone, Dan Nimmer on piano, Carlos Henriquez on bass, and Ali Jackson on drums – is an incredibly gifted musician in his own right. But it’s what they do together, listening carefully, playing off of one another, grooving and swinging, that is phenomenal.
Marsalis deployed all his trumpet-playing tricks – the chromatic flourishes, beautiful legato phrases countering unbelievably fast themes (especially in “Spark,” and dramatic leaps in register – but never at the expense of the music. A generous bandleader, he ensureed that each member of the talented Quintet received a well-deserved turn (or two or three) in the spotlight.
On “Doin’ Our Thing,” Blanding and Marsalis offered up a cheeky give and take between soprano sax and trumpet, as Jackson, Henriquez, and Nimmer traded solos. In “Come Love (Nothing Can Be Done)” Marsalis electrified the audience by coming down to the floor to showcase his trumpet virtuosity and leaving the stage to his the mischievous musical exchanges of his Quintet.
WPS delivered an early Valentine to its audience last night with a full evening of Wynton Marsalis – trumpeter extraordinaire, leader of the magnificent Wynton Marsalis Quintet, and composer of the beautiful and complex Blues Symphony. Washington Performing Arts is bringing Marsalis back to the DC area with his beloved Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on Sunday, April 19, at 7:00 p.m. for their annual Kennedy Center Concert Hall engagement – and I, for one, can’t wait.
Washington Performing Arts’ world premiere of Blues Symphony took place at the Music Center of Strathmore on Wednesday, February 4, 2015 at 8:00 p.m. For future Strathmore performances, go to their calendar of events.