Vail Bravo!: Classical-style sax appeal
VAIL – Few people are better known anywhere for making a jazz tune sizzle and swing than saxophonist Branford Marsalis. But less recognized is his ability to groove to a classical vibe.
The former musical director of “The Tonight Show” band does about 10 such concerts a year, performing with groups that have ranged from the Düsseldorf Symphony to the Philharmonia Brasileira.
Marsalis’ stature in the classical realm got a big boost earlier this month when he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic as part of its summer Concerts in the Park series.
Marsalis will join the orchestra again Thursday night when it repeats the program in Vail’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater as part of the famed ensemble’s eighth annual residency at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival.
Saxophone soloists are a rare sight in the symphonic world, and that’s exactly why the Philharmonic was eager to feature one, said the orchestra’s artistic administrator, John Mangum.
“We have plenty of great pianists, great violinists, sort of the expected soloists,” he said, “and we thought, ‘What would be unexpected?’ And a saxophone soloist just seemed like a really interesting idea.”
Guest conductor Andrey Boreyko knew just the performer for the job – Marsalis.
The two have worked together several times and have become friends. The saxophonist said they respond to music in the same way – never afraid to take a few risks and always ready for some fun along the way.
“When he hears music, he feels things, and that’s definitely the way I am,” Marsalis said. “I’m concerned with what music feels like. Technical perfection is preferred, but musical perfection has to be there at all times.”
The versatile saxophonist, who has toured with Sting and recently won a Drama Desk Award for his musical contributions to the Broadway revival of “Fences,” said classical music is the scariest thing he does.
When he is performing with his jazz quartet and makes a mistake, it is easy to recover, and most people in the audience don’t even notice.
“But in symphonic music,” he said, “there are so many things that can go wrong – one glitch and it just becomes a snowball. It’s so easy for that to happen.”
After the philharmonic settled on Marsalis, the next challenge was choosing the repertoire. There just aren’t that many concertos written for the saxophone, because it was not taken seriously by much of the classical establishment for decades after its invention.
One of the most frequently performed works for the instrument is Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E flat for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, Op. 109 (1934), and it was an obvious choice for the Russian-dominated program.
As a complementary companion piece, Marsalis suggested Erwin Schulhoff’s virtually unknown “Hot-Sonate (Hot Sonata)” for Saxophone and Orchestra, and the philharmonic quickly agreed.
“We were really excited about that, because it contrasts very nicely with the Glazunov,” Mangum said. “The Glazunov is very much plugged into the world of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and the Schulhoff is just completely different.”
Born into a Czech-German-Jewish family in Prague in 1894, Schulhoff achieved considerable fame as a composer before the Nazis denounced his music as degenerate in 1939 and blacklisted him. In 1941, he was arrested and taken to a concentration camp in Bavaria, where he died eight months later.
He was not alone. Scores of European composers received similar treatment – their careers ruined, their works suppressed, and, in the worst cases, their lives extinguished.
Schulhoff’s music was all but forgotten, but through the efforts of conductor James Conlon and others, his reputation has enjoyed a steady revival in the last couple of decades. The philharmonic’s performances of the “Hot-Sonate” – its first ever – are the latest steps in that process.
As its title implies, the four-movement 1930 work has a jazz sensibility but one very much in a European vein. Mangum related it to the music of Kurt Weill, and Marsalis noted the strong influences of ragtime and the fox trot.
The piece originally was composed for saxophone and piano. But it will be heard tonight in what is essentially a big-band version by widely known English composer and arranger Richard Rodney Bennett, who has written his own saxophone concerto.
“Obviously, he’s kind of interested in the genre and just really gets it,” said Mangum. “With the big band and the saxophone, it really underlines the jazz idiom.”
The two saxophone concertos along with works by Sergei Prokofiev and Anatoly Liadov easily add up to one of the most adventuresome programs the philharmonic has tackled during its summer visits to Vail.