Sunday, July 28, 2019

Wynton Marsalis Returns to the Classical Genre

Nicola Benedetti with Wynton Marsalis on the cover of her new album of his music (from the Web page for this recording)

Back in the Eighties, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis exercised his “rising talent” with albums in both the classical and jazz genres. At that time I remember watching a profile of him on television, probably on 60 Minutes. Among those interviewed to talk about Marsalis was conductor Raymond Leppard, who led the National Philharmonic Orchestra for the Marsalis recording of trumpet concertos by Joseph Haydn, Leopold Mozart, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Leppard was an affable interview subject, but he believed firmly that Marsalis could not thrive while dividing himself between classical and jazz. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, he would have to commit himself to one or the other.

I have no idea whether Leppard’s observation had an impact; but it is certainly the case that, over the course of the following decades, Marsalis established himself as a jazzman, frequently in the company of his relatives. While he is not my favorite in either the composer or performer categories, I certainly do not mind listening to his recordings; and I suspect that he chose the right fork in the road. More recently, however, he seems to have begun looking back at the classical “fork” and applying his hand to composing in that genre.

One of his inspirations appears to have been the British violinist Nicola Benedetti. A little over two weeks ago, Decca Classics released a new recording featuring her performing two Marsalis compositions, both of which were written for her. One is the Fiddle Dance Suite, scored for solo violin. The other is a four-movement concerto in D major, given its world premiere in November of 2015 by Benedetti, performing with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan. On the Decca recording she plays the concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru.

Bay Area readers probably know that Măcelaru is the current Music Director and Conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and those thinking of attending probably already know that Marsalis will be making his first appearance there as composer in residence. Benedetti will be one of the performers, and the violin concerto will be played on the final program of the festival. Sadly, the new Benedetti recording has done little to pique my curiosity about this event.

Indeed, as the reader may guess from the structuring of this article, listening to the performances of both pieces triggered my memories of Leppard’s cautionary warning. In his notes for the accompanying booklet, Marsalis claims that the concerto was “written from the perspective of a jazz musician and a New Orleans bluesman.” While I would not dispute that statement, I would suggest that “perspective” amounts to a “point of view;” and, when it comes to the considerable context of performances that fall under the rubric of “jazz musicians and a New Orleans bluesman,” Marsalis’ point of view is disconcertingly myopic. At the end of the day, the attentive listener will encounter any number of familiar gestures and can even appreciate specific denotations and connotations. Nevertheless, all of that sampling does not add up to very much, particularly when the samples are almost entirely embedded in contextual settings that are little more than syrupy.

Fortunately, the syrup is not as thick in the solo violin suite as it is in the concerto.This may have something to do with Benedetti’s ability to capture the spirit behind the notes. Mind you, there are signs of that spirit in her solo work in the concerto. However, in the concerto she has to contend with out-of-place intrusions from the orchestra, while, in the suite, she has “complete rhetorical control.” Nevertheless, even when Benedetti is in complete control, it is hard for me to ignore hearing LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) muttering “middle-brow” in the back of my head.

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