Classical music shakes its booty: Branford Marsalis at Roy Thomson Hall

Publication: The Toronto Star
Author: Peter Goddard
Date: November 23, 2011

The marriage of jazz and classical music has been as rocky as any Kim Kardashian romance, with often the same results: a bust-up that’s all noise.

So it was particularly heartening to see saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the Dr. Phil of musical matchmaking at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday night where music straight out of the Euro-classical tradition aimed to show it could shake some booty.

The ever-dapper Marsalis is familiar to the city, of course, and far easier to take than his egomaniacal younger brother, Wynton. Yet the performance had much that was unique, beyond the saxophonist making his TSO debut. (The program repeats Thursday night.)

For one thing, the night’s central works, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov’s “Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra” and Erwin Schulhoff’s “Hot-Sonate for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra,” play to Marsalis’s considerable ability to swing freely within the control freakish confines of a written score.

For another, the entire musical lineup — which began with guest conductor Andrey Boreyko leading the Toronto Symphony in a spritzy reading of Leonard Bernstein’s bubbly “Overture to Candide” — made for an under-the-radar offerings that’s more rewarding than those where a star soloist rides one of the old musical warhorses off into the sunset.

The roots of Glazunov’s works were in ’20s jazz era Paris where the Russian composer wrote the piece while on the lam from Soviet officialdom. Here’s music that provided a sympathetic mirror image to the “Chagall and the Russian Avant-Garde” exhibition now on at the Art Gallery of Ontario where a posse of other Russians are shown finding their radical roots in the West.

Nevertheless Marsalis’s controlled but swinging lyricism throughout the concerto would have likely been unimaginable to Glazunov, who might have been surprised at the liberties, every one felicitous, the soloist took with the score.

Marsalis’s edgier response to the Schulhoff suggested the soloist understood the anarchist streak that ran through the Prague-born composer’s dazzling creative life that ended in a Bavarian Nazi concentration camp in 1942. The high-pitched moans Marsalis coaxed out of the sax in the work’s later sections turned the Hot-Sonate into an attitude-filled singspiel without words.

However, capping off such a piquant night with Antonin Dvorak’s flabby if tuneful Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) — performed in draggy fashion by Boreyko & Co. — struck me as the classical equivalent of the night far back in the city’s music history when the Monkees culminated a show opened by Jimi Hendrix.

Submitted by Courtney on November 28th, 2011 — 02:11pm

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