Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Branford Marsalis, saxophone
Andrey Boreyko, conductor
At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Wednesday
The last wind instrument to become a permanent part of the standard orchestra was the clarinet, in the mid-1700s. Membership in the club had closed by the time the saxophone showed up a century later.
Various composers, impressed by the sax’s wide compass and range of tone, have brought it into the orchestra as a guest, often an exotic one. Just about every major composer working during the 1930s had a fling with the saxophone, which by then had developed a racy career as a jazz instrument.
On Wednesday, the TSO played two short alto sax concertos from that period, one with strings and relatively straight, the other with winds and flavoured with ragtime. The soloist was Branford Marsalis, a much celebrated jazz musician who over the past decade has built up his repertoire of sax concertos with orchestra.
He dressed for the occasion in tails, sporting a smooth, narrow vibrato you won’t hear on his recordings with the Branford Marsalis Quartet. He opened with the straight piece: Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto in E-flat major (1934), a solidly built work that began with a broad folk tune, ran through many well-tested strategies for working its themes, and generally made a case – which still seemed necessary back then – for the sax to be seen as a well-bred member of the musical community. Marsalis played it with a sweet pliable tone, understated virtuosity, and a sense of rhythm that wasn’t just freer than that of the strings, but subtly and fundamentally different.
Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonate, originally for sax and piano, came out in the Richard Rodney Bennett arrangement with winds, double bass (played by Jeffrey Beecher) and drum-kit (Brian Barlow). This was as fresh a period piece as you can imagine, a bit of Weimar hedonism brought to life on Thomson Hall’s ascetic stage. Schulhoff’s raffish take on ragtime rhythms and blues were vividly heightened by Bennett’s crafty contrasts of colour and texture, and (of course) Marsalis’s fluent, tactful performance.
I was ready to hear the piece again immediately, but “encore” these days always means “more,” not “again,” so Marsalis ended with a tasty jazz version of Kurt Weill’s Mack the Knife. He graciously traded solos with Barlow (a veteran of the Boss Brass), and left room for a nimble turn by Beecher (TSO principal bass and member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble).
The concert opened with a bright and refreshingly serious reading of Leonard Bernstein’s frisky Overture to Candide. The closer was Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”), an old standard that revealed new aspects of itself from the opening chords. The TSO knows this piece very well, yet these fine players sounded like a different orchestra with Boreyko, who coaxed from them a depth of sound and a lyrical persistence that really liberated the Slavic melos running through this great work. His attention to detail showed me things I’d never heard in this piece before, such as the laconic eloquence hidden in the two lean bass chords that ended the slow movement. What a wonderful frame for solos by English horn player Cary Ebli and, elsewhere, by clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas.
It’s a pity that Boreyko’s Canadian career with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (as music director from 2001 to 2006) coincided with a period of deep financial uncertainty there. He’s a compelling conductor, and a smart programmer too. Fortunately, TSO audiences get a second week to check him out, during next week’s performances (with Canadian-born violinist Leila Josefowicz) of works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Anatol Liadov.