Review: ‘Today’s Classical and Jazz Masters’ by the National Chamber Ensemble

As was announced at the beginning of the National Chamber Ensemble’s recent musical offering Today’s Classical and Jazz Masters —in a veiled reference to the British Royal Wedding —the audience was about to be treated to an instrumental marriage of classical and jazz music.

Julian Milkis (clarinet), Carlos Cesar Rodriguez (piano), and Leland Nakamura (drums) in the National Chamber Ensemble's Today's Classical and Jazz Masters. Photo by Angela S. Anderson.
Julian Milkis (clarinet), Carlos Cesar Rodriguez (piano), and Leland Nakamura (drums) in the National Chamber Ensemble’s Today’s Classical and Jazz Masters. Photo by Angela S. Anderson.

Aside from the exciting fusion of the two musical styles, there was an interesting mixture of older exciting standards on the program as well as three stimulating world premieres: composer Joel Phillip Friedman’s “When the World Disintegrates Before Your Eyes” and his “Pure Happenchance from Elastic Band Suite” as well as composer Sam Post’s “Upton Street Rag for Piano Solo.”

The first opening of the program was Alec Templeton’s “Pocket Size Sonata,” which was a combination of Debussy and jazz. The first movement, “Improvisation,” was performed beautifully by clarinetist Julian Milkis (the esteemed Benny Goodman’s only student). The second movement, entitled “Modal Blues,” was comprised of more languorous and lush clarinet playing. The third movement, entitled “In Rhythm,” had a jauntier rhythm and fine piano accompaniment by Carlos Cesar Rodriguez with Leland Nakamura on drums.

The next piece was the World Premiere of “When the World Disintegrates Before Your Eyes” by Joel Phillip Friedman. This was a solo violin version and included elements of Beethoven’s influence. Artistic Director and violinist Leonid Sushansky expressed his appreciation to Mr. Friedman for being allowed the honor of performing this piece. Mr. Sushansky mentioned that the piece could be perceived as somewhat depressing and has reminded people of mental illness.

Indeed, an instrumental bi-polar essence could be construed as the music demanded fluid transitions between faster, accelerated playing only to segue into a slower and more melancholy tone. The mid-section of the piece conveyed a deliberately almost abrasive tone to capture a harsh, emotionally disturbing effect. Yet another frenetic and impassioned movement of music was followed by a peaceful mood ——only to end with a long, evocative drawn-out hush. Mr. Sushansky proved himself a master at conveying the myriad of moods in composer Friedman’s innovative music.

Composer Claude Bolling’s popular “Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano“ was beautifully performed by violinist Sushansky and pianist Carlos Cesar Rodriguez. Jazzy accompaniment was provided by Leland Nakamura on drums and Ephriam Wolfolk on double bass. Composed of four movements, this proved to be a superior work by Mr. Bolling.

L-R: Carlos Cesar Rodriguez (piano), Joel Phillip Friedman (composer), Ephriam Wolfolk (double bass), Leonid Sushansky (violin/artistic director), Leland Nakamura (drums) and Julian Milkis (clarinet), following the National Chamber Ensemble's concert Today's Classical and Jazz Masters. Photo by Robert Jansen.
L-R: Carlos Cesar Rodriguez (piano), Joel Phillip Friedman (composer), Ephriam Wolfolk (double bass), Leonid Sushansky (violin/artistic director), Leland Nakamura (drums) and Julian Milkis (clarinet), following the National Chamber Ensemble’s concert Today’s Classical and Jazz Masters. Photo by Robert Jansen.

The first movement, entitled “Romance,” was overtly romantic and joyous. Mr. Ephriam Wolfolk’s double bass was suitably understated as the movement ended with a very hushed tone. The second movement was entitled “Ragtime” and the spirit and essence of Ragtime music was felt throughout. Mr. Sushansky’s violin dominated expertly while Mr. Rodriquez’s piano aided immeasurably with precise yet very light-hearted tones. This was a very upbeat movement.

The third movement, “Valse Lente,” had a very sweet, immersive and jazzy tone.

The fourth movement, “Slavonic Dance,” started off with a vibrant piano (Mr. Rodriguez) only to segue into an extremely jazzy rhythmic bass (Ephriam Wolfolk) and drums (Leland Nakamura). Mr. Sushansky’s violin segued into a more classical sound fused with a jazz sound. The next section transitioned into a feeling of pure joy from the distinctive bass of Mr. Wolfolk. As the movement ended, a very exciting mixture of piano, bass, and drums produced a feeling of euphoric joy.

Act Two opened with a moody piece appropriately entitled “Blues” by composer Ilya Dimov. The marvelous clarinetist Julian Milkis was joined by more upbeat piano playing by Mr. Rodriguez. Mr. Milkis performed with supreme nuance on the clarinet —-even succeeding brilliantly to produce more of an appropriate guttural sound on his instrument.

Composer Joel Phillip Friedman’s “Pure Happenchance from Elastic Band Suite” was up next in this innovative program of music and what a wonderful world premiere this was! Drummer Leland Nakamura produced a continuing beat that had a rhythmic jazz and tribal sound while the piano of Mr. Rodriguez provided thrilling accompaniment. Clarinetist Milkis performed with consummate skill and fluidity as the finale of this provocative instrumental suite erupted with a cacophonous yet euphoric and soul-stirring ensemble sound.

Composer Claude Bolling’s “Suite for Clarinet and Jazz Piano“ was an intriguing and captivating instrumental pleasure. The first movement entitled “Baroque and Blue” was decidedly avant-garde with a swinging and vivacious feel. The toggling back and forth between the more bluesy sound of Mr. Milkis’s clarinet and the more baroque style of Mr. Rodriguez’s piano playing made for a sophisticated musical ambiance.

The National Chamber Ensemble takes a bow at the end of its performance, Today's Classical and Jazz Masters. Photo by Robert Jansen.
The National Chamber Ensemble takes a bow at the end of its performance, Today’s Classical and Jazz Masters. Photo by Robert Jansen.

The second movement of this suite was entitled “Sentimentale” and, indeed, the music was very moving, romantic and natural in its appeal thanks to the immersive clarinet playing by Mr. Milkis and the sensitive piano accompaniment by Mr. Rodriguez.

The world premiere of composer Sam Post’s “Upton Street Rag for Piano Solo” was an astounding and artistically audacious display of musical virtuosity by pianist Carlos Cesar Rodriguez. The intermixing of classical music (shades of Bach!) and ragtime music made for such a joyous and euphoric musical memory that I wish it would linger in my mind and heart forever.

The finale in the program was composer Alexander Goldstein’s “Trio on The Roof.” This instrumental piece was the final piece in a trio of movements based on the hugely popular and artistic Broadway musical success Fiddler on the Roof. A very clever mix of Mr. Sushansky’s violin and Mr. Milkis’s clarinet feeding from one another helped to produce an ultra-jazzy and original cover of some obvious basic chords from the song “If I Were a Rich Man.”

For a well-deserved encore, the audience was rewarded with a wistful and moving rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s classic standard “Smile.”

Bouquets and Bravos to the National Chamber Ensemble -–under the artistic direction of Mr. Leonid Sushansky –for providing the DC metro region with such a wealth of musical enrichment and with such a showcase for talented musicians.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Today’s Classical and Jazz Masters was presented by the National Chamber Ensemble on Saturday, May 19, 2018, at 7:30 PM at the Gunston Arts Center’s Theater One, located at 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206. For tickets to future events by the National Chamber Ensemble, go online.

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David Friscic
David has always had a passionate interest in the arts from acting in professional dinner theatre and community theatre to reviewing film and local theatre in college to making numerous treks to New York City to indulge his interest in live theatre. An enthusiastic interest in writing has shown itself in a BA in English/Education and an MA in English Literature. Taken together, these two interests have culminated in the logical conclusion of writing for an arts blog. David moved up and down the East Coast due to his father's job at General Electric and this has helped him to perceive the world in a very open way. After his schooling, David taught in Catholic school systems for awhile and, then, spent three years in the seminary with two years at Catholic University studying Theology and one year in a practicuum working at a church in New York State. David currently works at the National Science Foundation as a Technical Information Specialist for the Office of Polar Programs and has had the great opportunity to go to Antarctica twice and Greenland once in support of the research community. He enjoys living in Bethesda and has taken courses at the Writer's Center. David enjoys swimming, traveling, reading, and working on committees at his condo. His major interest, however, is the arts and all it encompasses---from symphony, to film, to museum treks to live theatre. He counts having lunch with Lillian Gish and meeting Lily Tomlin, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Liza Minnelli and Sandy Dennis as some of the more exciting encounters of his life.