Sunday, May 12, 2019

Marcus Roberts Trio Plays Well with NCCO

NCCO visitors Rodney Jordan, Marcus Roberts, and Jason Marsalis (from the event page for last night’s concert on the NCCO Web site)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) presented the San Francisco installment of the final concert in its 2018–2019 season. The title of the program was American Masters; and the “designated masters” for the evening were (in order of birth year) George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein. The group was led by Music Director Daniel Hope; and the guest artists for the evening were the members of the Marcus Roberts Trio, bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis led by jazz pianist Roberts.

Hope and Roberts have been colleagues at past seasons of the Savannah Music Festival, independently providing classical music and jazz programming for each summer’s season. Recently they prepared a program for “side-by-side” comparison of the classical piano trio, whose traditions reach back to the First Viennese School (Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven) and the more recent jazz trio repertoire. The idea of a jazz trio seems to have originated in 1937 when pianist Nat King Cole started playing with rhythm provided by guitar (Oscar Moore) and bass (Wesley Price); but it was not long until trios formed with a drummer replacing the guitarist.

As might be guessed, there was significant opposition between the classical and jazz approaches to trio playing. Hope and Roberts agreed that they should work on a more cooperative encounter between classical and jazz worlds. The result last night was a suite of five songs that George Gershwin wrote for Broadway musicals, each given a shared performance by both NCCO and Roberts’ trio. NCCO played from scores arranged by Paul Bateman, structured to allow improvised interjections by the trio.

While this may sound somewhat contrived, the results turned out to be thoroughly engaging. Gershwin tunes lend themselves to any number of differing approaches to arrangement. Indeed, Gershwin himself arranged four of the five songs played last night when he prepared the solo piano compositions in the 1932 publication George Gershwin’s Song Book. Bateman showed a perceptive sensitivity to not only the “chorus” sections, which are often the only familiar part of the song, but also the introductory “verse” portions. (Hershy Kay showed similar sensitivity in the arrangements he made for George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” ballet; and memories of Patricia McBride dancing to the opening of “The Man I Love” still send chills up my spine.)

Roberts’ keyboard improvisations were, to say the least, prodigious. His embellishments were rich without ever coming off as excessively florid. There was even one overwhelming flood of notes that seemed to reflect all the way back to the 1908 “Ondine” movement from Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit suite. It was also a delight to see NCCO bass player Anthony Manzo positively glowing at the improvised inventiveness coming from Jordan’s bass work. Marsalis was not quite as prominent; but, even when he was primarily supportive, the variety of his instruments brought a freshness to even the most familiar passages.

Bateman was also responsible for two other arrangements performed during the first half of the program. The first of these involved six of the ten songs in Copland’s Old American Songs collection. These were originally scored for voice and piano but are more frequently performed these days with orchestra accompaniment.

Hope observed that Copland felt that these songs could be arranged for other combinations of performers, and Bateman’s settings were definitely up to snuff. All six of the selections tended to prioritize the tune over the words (meaning that songs like “The Dodger” and “I Bought Me a Cat,” complete with sound effects, were not included). This allowed Hope to focus on the themes themselves without ever worrying about trying to evoke “vocal effects.”

Less satisfying were the arrangements of six of Bernstein’s songs for West Side Story. These were pieces that thrived on Stephen Sondheim’s cleverly imaginative words and Bernstein’s extroverted sonorities at their brassiest. Nevertheless, there is a “familiarity factor” to that music that always seems to register well with audiences.

Still, the juxtaposition of Bernstein and Gershwin left me wondering about the endurance of American musical theater. The Gershwin shows are now around a century old. They tend not to get many revival performances, but their songs are still very much with us. How strong will the memory of West Side Story be when it reaches its centennial at the middle of this century?

The one selection that did not require arrangement has definitely established its staying power. This was Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” This was originally written as the middle movement of a string quartet. However, that movement was rearranged by Barber for string ensemble when encouraged to do so by Arturo Toscanini. Since that time it has been played with almost reliable regularity at Presidential funerals and has established a reputation for consummate tragedy realized through music.

Fortunately, NCCO knew better than to overplay such clearly evident emotional connotations. They let the music speak for itself, allowing the uncanny length of the thematic line to weave itself into richer and richer polyphonic settings while rising in both pitch and dynamic levels. There is a sense of transcendent achievement at the peak of climax, but that sense quickly recedes to the quietude with which the Adagio began. Toscanini clearly had the right instincts, and Barber knew how to deliver. Last night’s reading by NCCO could not have been a more compelling account of how Barber responded to Toscanini.

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