Classical orchestra concerts continue to change, morph and evolve like everything else in our culture. The established leader in orchestral evolution, arguably, in the Chicago area is the soon-to-be-30-year old Sinfonietta.
The final concert of their 29th year, attended by this reviewer last night, allowed them to break more ground and show how great it is when classical and jazz improvisation can get along in the same piece, Rhapsody in Blue.
Yes, real, current jazz improvisation was brilliantly played in a classical favorite, and it worked!
Chicago Sinfonietta Chooses Pieces with Rhythmic Interest
The interesting title for the concert, ‘Rightness in the Rhythm’, used examples of cool, but energetic rhythms in 5 pieces probably chosen for each one’s rhythmic interest.
Opening the program, enthusiastically led by Sinfonietta guest Assistant conductor Deanna Tham, was the Overture to Treemonisha, by rag composer Scott Joplin. This year is the 100th anniversary of Joplin’s passing, and it’s rare to hear something other than one of his great rags performed by an orchestra. The term rag— taken from ‘rag-ged rhythms’, now called syncopation— is dated now, but during Joplin’s life, 1868-1917, was very popular music.
Joplin is indisputably the King of Ragtime. But he deeply wanted to be accepted by the white classical music world of the early 20th century. Frustrated, Joplin wound up writing, playing and selling his 44 rags to eke out a living. Overture to Treemonisha, the Joplin opener of the concert, is the beginning of an opera about African-American life that Joplin wrote. This work premiered in 1915, but it was all but ignored by the New York opera world and failed. The music itself pretty clearly has several themes meant to portray various characters in the opera. , The overture presents them musically for the first time, just like in established operas by European composers. Joplin’s overture seems like an early, brave attempt. This writer wonders what might have happened had he lived longer and gotten even a little encouragement and guidance into the classical music world. Would he eventually be known as a crossover – from popular music to classical – just like composer like George Gershwin?
Gershwin, like Joplin, wrote many songs in the teens and roaring 20’s and similarly worked as a popular piano player and accompanist in New York. Gershwin wrote an opera about African- American life at the time, Porgy and Bess, which was a success and has become a much-loved classic. Besides Porgy and Bess, Gershwin is known for his two beloved blockbusters that were performed by the Sinfonietta in this performance--An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue. An American in Paris was delightfully performed, led by music director Mei-Ann Chen with magical passion. This version has its own blues section, first by the solo trumpet and then the whole, magnificent orchestra version.
Other examples of interesting rhythms at the concert were present in the poignant Variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, by living composer Michael Abels, born in 1962. Sinfonietta musicians John Floeter (bass), Jeff Handley (set drums), and Matt Lee (trumpet) took nice improvisatory solos in front of the orchestra as a trio with orchestra. Matt Lee leads the trio with his trumpet in an effective and rousing performance.
The other non-Gershwin piece besides the Joplin was Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town: Three Dance Episodes.
There is something distinctly, compellingly New York style about Bernstein’s music. He accomplished this excitement by using even more complex and exciting rhythms (think West Side Story) than earlier composers. Maestro Chen led the orchestra in a fast, exciting performance of the first and last dances, and a poignant Lonely Town pas de deux in the middle.
Rhapsody in Blue Finale…and Encores
The climax of the evening, which led to two encores, was Rhapsody in Blue, done NOT as usual with a great classical pianist, but with a whole jazz trio—the Marcus Roberts trio. Marcus Roberts, the pianist, is blind and his performance seems to suggest there is truth to the conventional wisdom that a blind person’s remaining senses can be heightened and enhanced to achieve more than those of a sighted person. He spoke briefly before the beginning of the Rhapsody about how he would be improvising the piano parts, but that we would recognize the irreplaceable Gershwin themes nonetheless. That was pretty much the case. He has been doing this piece with orchestras for 20 years and probably no two performances have been the same. In fact, observers of George Gershwin’s many Rhapsody in Blue performances in the 20s and 30s similarly said no two were the same, since the piano playing was entirely improvised. His trio, made up of Rodney Jordon on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums, was right with him. This writer never knew jazz could be so exactly together and coordinated, especially by the drummer, Marsalis. The orchestra played the traditional parts, reading music, but in between were the improvised parts by the trio. Sometimes the orchestra played together with the trio achieving rarely achieved, combining traditional orchestra parts written 90 years ago with very current, right now, complex jazz.
One could say that the progression of this concert from Joplin’s ragtime, which evolved into jazz, to Rhapsody in Blue, pointed out that performances of the classic, enduring music we love does not need to become stagnant. Music evolves right along with our culture to new possibilities, and Chicago Sinfonietta compels us to stay tuned.
A second performance of this concert was held on May 15 in Symphony Center.
For more information on this performance and other upcoming Chicago Sinfonietta performances visit the Chicago Sinfonietta Website.
About the Author:
Mark Lindeblad is a working pianist and bassoonist in Chicagoland. He received the Bachelor's of Music performance degree, bassoon major, piano minor from Wichita State University in 1978 and the Master's of Music performance degree in bassoon from Roosevelt University in 1983 in Chicago. While doing piano accompanying was always happening on the side from high school and college years, it stepped up to be Mark’s primary occupation in the 1990's. Today he is a piano accompanist at Glenbard South High School, and plays principal bassoon in the Southwest Symphony, and also finds time for about 20 private students studying either bassoon or piano. For more information, visit Mark LIndeblad’s website: www.markspianostudio.com