Marsalis, a three-time Grammy winner who has his own jazz quartet, is no stranger to classical music and is a frequent soloist with major symphony orchestras.
But when he opens the Beethoven festival next Sunday, the 51-year-old will perform his first classical music recital since high school.
“This recital is something I have wanted to do for a long time,” Marsalis said in a recent telephone interview. “I don’t play classical music as much as I would like, but the more I play, the better I get. It is the most solid music I play.”
For the recital, Marsalis is collaborating with pianist Ned Kirk, a Saint Mary’s University music professor and artistic/managing director of the Beethoven festival.
“He is an amazing musician and collaborating with him has been a joy,” Kirk said. “He is the first artist who has treated me like a partner, with a lot of give and take.”
Kirk has rehearsed with Marsalis in California, North Carolina and New Orleans in preparing for the recital. It was Kirk who suggested they stage a classical music recital together after Marsalis and a Brazilian ensemble performed a special concert in October 2008 as part of the Beethoven Festival.
“He was very excited about such a recital because it was new to him, and it has been an amazing experience,” Kirk said.
Marsalis will play works for alto and soprano sax by six composers, including Beethoven and Samuel Barber.
He has played classical music professionally for 10 years. He performs about 10 classical music concerts a year and he made his debut with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra two years ago.
“I was horrified playing with the New York Philharmonic, and I had not (shook) like that on stage in a long time,” Marsalis said. “But in the end, it was awesome.”
He said he wasn’t fearful of classical music, though.
“I’m not afraid to fail on stage, it’s my best attribute,” he said. “Anything can go wrong on stage, but you always learn something from it.”
Marsalis, who played in a youth symphony orchestra as a child, said his first three or four years of playing classical music as a professional was a struggle.
“It requires a different and certain level of precision and interpretation,” he said.
“You have to groove just like jazz, but jazz is more conversational, and with classical music, you must develop a character that is believable.”
He likes the sound and beauty of classical music, which has taught him much, Marsalis said.
Marsalis said his collaboration with Kirk has plenty of possibilities for the future.
“Ned is awesome,” Marsalis said. “It’s hard to basically enforce a musical relationship. But he’s easy to work with, and he enjoys the process. We have a fun time, and it would be awesome to take him on tour.”