Pairing classical music with jazz in performance is certainly nothing new in the music world, but inviting jazz saxophone monster Branford Marsalis as the special guest to collaborate with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center last week was something deliciously fresh to experience.
In the evening’s program Marsalis tackled two modern concertos under the baton of 41-year-old guest conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, the music director of the Nashville Symphony.
Debussy’s delicate “Prelude to the afternoon of a Faun” started the ball rolling for the evening. Guerrero’s impassioned leadership coaxed a near-perfect rendition from the orchestra, as did selections from Bizet’s “Carmen,” including the widely popular “Bohemian Dance.”
With the advent of contemporary composer John William’s “Escapades, for alto saxophone and orchestra,” from the film score of Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” vibraphonist Chris Deviney and double bassist Hal Robinson moved to the front of the stage, creating a jazz nucleus within the greater orchestra.
Marsalis nodded to conductor Guerrero, and the orchestra began to play, as Marsalis’ alto saxophone soared in and out of the notes while the bass and vibes chugged away behind him. Guerrero was a man possessed – whirling back and forth between the violins on one side of the stage and the cellos on the other, while his hands and baton were in a flurry of constant motion triggering a wide range of dynamic responses from the orchestra and the saxman.
After the intermission, two Ravel-composed crowd-pleasers sandwiched Marsalis’ second appearance. The first, “Rapsodie espagnole,” featured four movements that traversed the emotional spectrum from the delicate and sublime to the roaring and thunderous. “Bolero” was the second and the evening’s closer. Popularized in the Blake Edward’s film “10,” the piece began softly and built momentum minute by minute. Guerrero’s fiery baton brought it to a point where it took on a life of its own, and he stepped back like a proud father to let the piece fly. Eventually taking back the reins of the orchestra, the conductor brought the composition to a triumphant close.
In between, Milhaud’s “Scaramouch, Op. 165c, suite for alto saxophone and orchestra” brought Marsalis back to the spotlight for round two of the classical sax portion of the night. Even within the confines of the written classical score, Marsalis was able to bring an inferred jazz sensibility to the composition’s three movements. Wickedly clever and smooth, Marsalis delivery was spot on and effortless.
Then in the true spirit of jazz improvisation, Marsalis unexpectedly went off script. While taking his second bow, he invited bassist Robinson back to join him at the front of the stage. Within minutes, the duo launched into a rendition of the jazz chestnut, “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” Robinson certainly held his own as Marsalis’ sax bobbed and weaved in and out of the song’s familiar melody line.
The pairing of Branford Marsalis and the Philadelphia Orchestra was a tremendous artistic success, and hopefully, we’ll see more of this kind of collaboration in future summer seasons.
Review and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Judith White’s review at The Saratogian
Joseph Dalton’s review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Geraldine Freedman’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Marsalis, who like Guerrero was making his SPAC debut, came on to strong applause to play John Williams’ ‘Escapades’ from the 2002 film ‘Catch Me If You Can.’ The three movements were very jazz inflected with written lines that simulate the type of material often found in improvisations: scales and arpeggios. Most of the material was also in the middle range of the instrument. Marsalis produced a mellow tone and showed off a smooth technique. In the slower second movement, he applied some vibrato effectively to the long melodies. Although he was reading the part, his stance seemed almost as if he was about to burst into a few fast improvisatory licks — but that was later.”