By Roger Emanuels
THE FINAL CABRILLO FESTIVAL CONCERT was devoted to orchestral music by trumpet virtuoso and jazz great Wynton Marsalis. On the program were just two pieces, his Concerto in D for violin and orchestra (2015) and The Blues Symphony (2009). Here is a composer who writes on a large canvas, drawing on many influences and sources for his musical ideas. And because he is inspired with so many brilliant ideas, he wants to fit them all within the form he is writing.
The concerto has four fully stocked movements, and the symphony requires seven movements to accommodate his imagination. The result can be very enjoyable and stimulating to hear, but difficult to digest. Best to savor some moments and carry those into memory from the experience. However, most remarkable were the excellent performances by the Festival Orchestra, the passionate virtuosity of the violin soloist, Nicola Benedetti, and the skill of music director Cristian Măcelaru.
Nicola Benedetti is a Scottish violinist who has won major awards from an early age. Marsalis wanted to write a concerto that she would enjoy playing so they embarked on a lengthy collaboration to create the work. The work premiered in London and recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra with maestro Măcelaru conducting. The recording was released last month, July 2019 on Decca Classics, paired with Fiddle Dance Suite, an echo of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, for violin by Marsalis.
See this documentary on that collaboration
Wynton Marsalis is a storyteller. With a lifetime interest in finding common ground between diverse musical expressions, he draws from African, Afro-American, Celtic, Scottish, Latin American and North American cultures. But it is with the blues form and expression where he excels. There is always a bit of New Orleans in his music. He is able to successfully put these sounds to a written score, even to the extent of notating music that transmits a sense of improvisation.
The concerto opens with a “Once upon a time” lyrical melody and finishes over forty minutes later with the heroine riding off into the sunset. In between, the score offers tales of travels that play like a kaleidoscope of experiences. The first movement “Rhapsody” is described by the composer as moving from a dream through a nightmare. It opens with Benedetti’s warm, intimate tone and evolves into virtuosic passages. This was the only movement with a few moments when the brass and winds covered the soloist. Otherwise, Benedetti projected easily above the occasionally heavy textures. The movement ends with utmost delicacy, as a fife and drum invite a preview of Celtic dancing with foot percussion by select orchestra sections.
The second movement is a “Rondo Burlesque,” with rapidly changing rhythms and constantly changing moods and a gumbo flavor. New Orleans is the inspiration here. A rich array of percussion instruments is used in many subtle and colorful ways. At one point in rehearsal, Marsalis coached the player for the sound of an African cowbell, which has a different ring than an American cowbell. It’s all in how you strike the bell. Such attention to detail is typical of Marsalis. An extended solo cadenza eventually evolved into a duet with percussion, expertly played by Svet Stoyanov.
The third movement, “Blues,” carries a mood of nostalgia and longing. The fourthmovement, “Hootenanny,” is a foot-stomping barn dance. At one moment the soloist gets a lovely duet with the principal viola and another coupling with solo cello and bass, creating intimate duets. The ending fades away as the soloist exits the stage, continuing to play the final notes in the distance. The orchestra had its own special moments in the concerto but preserved a delicacy that allowed the solo violin to remain the focus of audience attention.
Then the orchestra emerged to center stage for The Blues Symphony. The enhanced acoustics of the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium provided a warm environment for a full orchestral sound. Maestro Cristi molded the balance throughout the seven movements, and maintained a tight and precise rhythm, reaching a peak of intensity in the final movement. The piece began with the story of the American Revolution, with fife and drum, followed by the second movement that represented images of water as the African slaves were transported to the New World. Late 19th-century New Orleans is represented in the third movement, with special attention to the trumpet, clarinet and trombone. Latin rhythms pervade the sixth movement. The final movement clamors to fulfill Marsalis’ wish: “We have to communicate with one another.”