DETROIT — The compositions of Wynton Marsalis now extend to a substantial catalog in jazz and classical genres that includes many works for jazz ensembles, oratorios (Blood on the Fields, All Rise), a string quartet, sacred works (In This House, The Abyssinian Mass), numerous film and dance scores and four symphonies.
This is a hugely impressive accomplishment, and the bulk of it is available on recordings made by top-notch performers. I’ve listened to a good deal of it over the years, and I find it attractive, inventive and always intriguing, but it’s often marked by a prolixity that tends to diminish its impact. He also tends to go long on weaker ideas, short on better ones, and there are moments in most of his pieces that could do with some strong editing.
But everything he composes is important, and it was with that in mind that I sought out a live performance of the jazz trumpeter’s newest symphonic work, a violin concerto written for the Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti. It had a trial run at the Chautauqua Festival in New York in 2015, and later that year, after revisions, had its world premiere in London. It also had a performance at last year’s Ravinia Festival in Chicago, with the fine Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru leading the Chicago Symphony and Benedetti.
When I spoke to her in March for her appearances in South Florida with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra led by Peter Oundjian of the Toronto Symphony, for which she was playing two German warhorses — Brahms and the Bruch No. 1 — Benedetti mentioned being eager to do more performances of the new Marsalis concerto, which he, a trusted mentor, had written for her. The process was documented on an hourlong BBC Four documentary (it’s typical of our country’s approach to classical music that a new work like this, by a major American composer, would inspire a British TV documentary, but not one here).
I told Nicky, as she is familiarly known, that I would try to get to Detroit to hear it, and so on the morning of June 2, I found myself at the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center on Woodward Avenue for a weekday performance of the piece, the second of three Benedetti did with the DSO and conductor James Gaffigan. These occasional Friday morning concerts are accompanied by free coffee and doughnuts, a splendid idea that helped make the concert even more enjoyable.
The Detroit Symphony plays in a beautifully restored hall, and this concert was broadcast live on WRCJ-FM and over the web at dso.org. At least two groups of schoolchildren were on hand for this well-attended concert, which helped make the audience younger and gave the event a big-family kind of feeling.
The program opened with the Circus Polka of Stravinsky and closed with the Fifth Symphony (in E minor, Op. 64) of Tchaikovsky, which also marked the DSO’s season finale. The Stravinsky, written in 1942 for an elephant ballet at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was an inspired choice for the light it cast on the Marsalis concerto, and was played with great gusto. Gaffigan led the Tchaikovsky with a firm hand and clearly marked interpretive choices of tempo and emphasis (including a wide dynamic range) that re-established this very popular Romantic work’s bona fides as an audience favorite.
The Marsalis concerto came second on the bill, with a program note that said it had been “considerably changed” after its premiere, and that “it is possible that further changes will be made with succeeding performances.” The version I heard was about 40 minutes long and in four movements, and it is characteristic Marsalis in its overall style and approach.
It has a good deal in common with Americanists such as George Gershwin and William Grant Still in its willingness to step back and forth between a classical modernism of the mid-20th century and jazz, but it also has goes more straightforwardly into jazz than those two predecessors without having to present a greeting card from Crossover Land. Its language, in other words, is mostly blended, and quite conservative harmonically. But it has a sense of theater and daring that strikes me as very much of the moment.
Like so much of Marsalis’s music, it also is steeped in the history of our nation and its performance styles. American folk fiddling has been absorbed into the texture, for instance, and when there is a big brass chorale late in the piece, it is pure New Orleans brass band (and the tuba is a sousaphone). Marsalis is a composer whose didactic proclivities and sense of mission on behalf of American music, and African-American music in particular, give his music a unique sense of continuity with the past. The closest historical parallel in the music of the United States would probably be Charles Ives, without that composer’s overt nostalgia and with a different tonal heritage, but with the same message of respect for music of previous eras.
The concerto (which is formally titled Violin Concerto in D) is in four movements, with a long solo cadenza that links movements two (a scherzo) and three (a slow blues). The opening Rhapsody begins with a gentle, beautiful melody on the solo violin that is among Marsalis’s most beguiling, and one wanted it to return more often. It then moves into a frenetic outburst complete with police whistles before returning to the more placid material of the opening.
The Rondo Burlesque that follows, with a wild and virtuosic solo part, is the most purely classical of the movements, with a strong Stravinsky flavor. The cadenza that links the second and third movements is hugely difficult and powerful but overstays its welcome somewhat, with two major ideas that compete for dominance without any victor. The slow movement is a pretty piece with big, lush string writing and a highly distilled, sophisticated blues language.
The finale, titled Hootenanny, is the most original of the movements, beginning with the orchestra players stomping their feet in rhythm before any notes are played. And when the country dance gets going with sassy, ebullient music, it does so to percussionist handclaps. Later on, there is a lovely duet with the soloist and the principal violist (played elegantly in this performance by Eric Nowlin), and the concerto ends charmingly, with Benedetti playing a bluesy riff in the highest register as she walks slowly off the stage into the wings, the music dying away as she keeps playing offstage.
Benedetti is a marvelous player, and she was magnificent that Friday, with an ease of execution that was enviable and remarkable. She has no technical problems, and her playing was distinguished by flawless intonation, stellar virtuosity, and even more important, an attitude of sheer joy and high spirits. Clad in a black shoulderless one-piece and heels, she managed to mix glamour with down-to-earth musicianship, smiling, bobbing her head in rhythm, and singing silently along even as she tackled the concerto with deep seriousness.
The DSO was equally superb, with inspired direction by Gaffigan, who appeared to be having as good a time as Benedetti in leading this concerto. This is a brightly hued work orchestrally, and Marsalis likes to bring in sections, like a jazz band writer would. In this concerto, it’s very effective, with his American modernist language coexisting with swatches of discrete color sweeping in to present a sonic panorama that serves both as history lesson and a dive into a treasure box of shiny objects.
Marsalis’s long compositional career and his close working relationship with Benedetti have served him well here, in that the balance between the large orchestra and soloist is skillfully managed, and there is enough virtuosity and variety in the solo part to make it riveting from a showcase perspective and alluring enough to the ear to sustain interest over a substantial span of time. Aside from the overlong cadenza, it has a passage of strenuous solo writing in accompaniment to the orchestra at one point early on that doesn’t speak particularly well, and the Blues movement, as good as it was, would be that much better with some slightly more distinctive melodic material.
Although the concerto feels about five minutes too long, it’s less sprawling than his other pieces, and it represents a cogent expression of the composer’s mature classical style. If the Violin Concerto in D of Wynton Marsalis is not a masterpiece, it nevertheless comes quite close. To my mind this is the best piece he’s ever written, and the one work in his current catalog that stands fairest to be a repertory item.
It deserves to be widely heard in the country that gave it birth, and which its composer has served with such dedication, for so long, and with such exemplary distinction.