VAIL — The mere mention of Branford Marsalis’ name conjures the distinctive warmth of his jazz and blues sound.
At the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater on Thursday, the versatile, three-time Grammy-winning saxophonist proved himself equally proficient in the realm of classical music. Having debuted with the New York Philharmonic this month in Manhattan’s Concerts in the Park series, he repeated that rare program here as part of the orchestra’s eighth annual residency at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival.
Cleverly engaging a familiar and well-liked soloist like Marsalis, the Philharmonic had no trouble pulling off a couple of arcane saxophone concertos, never mind a sparser audience than usual perhaps due to light rain. Alongside Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko, the jazzman demonstrated a swift, fluid technique in Alexander Glazunov’s lush Concerto in E-flat Major for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, Op. 109. But it was his rich, velvety tone and sheer virtuosity of the cadenza that made this performance memorable, strengthened by Boreyko’s expressive phrasings.
Where Glazunov’s work is short on jazz motifs, Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonata (Hot-Sonate) for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra — arranged by Robert Russell Bennett — is replete with bluesy themes and soulful syncopations. Marsalis found his groove here, turning in a slick, robust performance — zippy and vigorous, as well as beautifully tender and unhurried. What didn’t quite get off the ground, however, was Marsalis’ improvised and, regrettably, awkward encore with one of the Philharmonic’s bass players, David Grossman.
After intermission, the full Philharmonic delivered selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Forceful, animated and wonderfully sensitive in his interpretations, Boreyko led the orchestra to capture the anguished, shifting moods and a spirit of profound resignation in the ballet score. Upon standing ovations, the Philharmonic rendered a buoyant reading of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s romantic, lighthearted waltz from his “Sleeping Beauty” ballet. The program opened with Anatol Liadov’s brief, exacting “Baba-Yaga,” Op. 56 in which Boreyko effectively evoked the martial tenor of a Russian folk tale, concluding on a precise and humorously abrupt note.