The Finest Piece of American Concert Hall Music in a Generation

09/24/2010 4:00 AM |

The New York Philharmonic kicks off every new season by performing "The Star-Spangled Banner," during which even the musicians stand—except the bass and cello players, of course. But the orchestra paid much greater tribute to our country on Wednesday night, this season's opening night, a few moments later, when they began the U.S. premiere of Wynton Marsalis' Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3), a stunning piece of new music that in a just world would be valued as highly as Scott Key's anthem. After its final notes dispersed from Avery Fisher, it became an instant national treasure.

The piece does, as its title promises, swing—and moan, and yelp, and shriek, and weep. The five movements form a historical survey of various regional styles of American jazz, played through a classical filter but still screeching with the sounds of cities and suburbs, blacks and whites, an all-encompassing sonic People's History of the last 100 years.

It opens by hearkening back to Gershwin with a loose jazz-age buoyancy before it adopts a bluesy New Orleans drawl, evoking humid, smoke-filled basements. (Indeed, the first movement is called "St. Louis to New Orleans"!) As the piece progresses, it moves through the sounds of Midwestern independence day parades and gritty New York noir classics, making stops in the spunky jazz that defined the 60s, especially on the California coast—what my companion called a "Pink Panther-y feel"—and the peppy 40s big band that Woody Allen uses behind opening credits sequences.

On the whole, it sounded like a jazz Smile, or a really long "Dance at the Gym" in which every section's as good as the "Mambo." Hell, it recalls no less than Mingus at his most ambitious (the album Let My Children Hear Music), but with a lot more joy; it was the most jubilant performance I've ever heard from the Phil, which was joined on stage by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Marsalis himself blew a squawking horn. The last time I heard the two collaborate, four years ago, Marsalis' group embarrassed the Philharmonic; they traded pieces from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker: the Phil took on the Russian's arrangements, Jazz played Duke Ellington's. And those old classical fogies couldn't compare.

But here the two groups complemented each other. Marsalis' new work, so masterfully evocative of times and places, is virtuosically arranged and structured, with complex rhythms and nuanced changes of style. The Philharmonic's musicians nailed those foundational sounds, freeing the Jazz Orchestra to supply an air of improvisatory vigor over it—percussionists clapped their hands in time, trombonists took wild solos, musicians hollered encouragingly, as jazz musicians do. It proved a perfect marriage of precision and passion.

After intermission, the orchestra performed Richard Strauss's Don Juan (1888), a "tone poem"; if symphonies are like novels, this was like an orchestral short story, one with brash, superheroic emotions. The music's puffed-chest bravado, smooth amorousness, its alluring vulgarity, serve as perfect reflections of its subject's swagger. They followed with Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses of Themes of Carl Maria von Weber (1942), which featured a similar tour of styles as Marsalis' piece, but more internationally scoped, moving from Hungary to China. The rapture in the finale is hard-won, a symphonic struggle where several moments of potential exuberance fell back into sad, minor, tired chords, before trying again.

Both of these pieces would have helped make an ordinarily excellent opening night for the orchestra. But they couldn't compare to what we had just heard, perhaps the finest piece of American concert hall music in a generation. (We're lucky to have a music director like Alan Gilbert, who takes chances on such kinds of unorthodox music.) Marsalis' embarrassed bows at the end marked maybe the most triumphant artistic moment I'll ever witness.

(photos credit: Chris Lee)