Branford Marsalis and the Philadelphia Orchestra @ SPAC 8/10/11

Author: Joseph Dalton
Date: August 11, 2011

SARATOGA SPRINGS -  Whose presence — the soloist, the conductor or certain composers — most enlivened Wednesday’s concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra is hard to pinpoint.  But it was nearly impossible to walk out of the amphitheater at the end of the evening without a lively beat or a good tune in your pocket.

The headliner was saxophonist Branford Marsalis.  Better known for his roots in jazz, he performed beautifully in two brief and colorful concertos. The composers of those works were rarities during the typical SPAC season: American film score master John Williams and the 20th-century Frenchman Darius Milhaud.

Williams’ “Escapades” is three movements of melodic chards and vibrant rhythms — including finger snaps by the orchestra — taken from his score to Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can.”  Though maintaining a warm and mellow tone throughout, Marsalis seemed to delight in the punchy and pungent material, which he performed with marimba and bass at his side.

Marsalis returned after intermission for Milhaud’s “Scaramouche.” Here the saxophone writing sings in a higher register and the whole is a pastiche of popular styles along with some smart and unexpected harmonic turns.  For an encore, Marsalis offered a charming improvisation with bass on “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”

The real show horse of the night, at least from the perspective of stage presence, was conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, who is music director of the Nashville Symphony.  He managed to make the evening’s finale — the orchestra’s dreaded biennial performance of “Bolero” — into an unexpected delight.

“Bolero” itself didn’t change much. But Guerrero, 41, felt confident enough on the podium to stop conducting for long passages and just nod his head or swing his hips now and then.  When it was time for the brass to take their verse, the conductor took charge again and pushed everyone on toward the final bars.  His face beet red, he became a bull with steam coming out of his nostrils.

Without resorting to quite the same extreme manner, Guerrero did fine with the rest of the evening’s French warhorses, which included an elegant “Prelude to Afternoon of a Faun” and an explosive “Rapsodie espagnole.”

Selections from “Carmen” danced along their familiar way as well.  Guerrero did start the “Bohemian Dance” on the slow side causing the already hard working woodwinds to falter slightly.  But the conductor kept ratcheting up the tempo for a dramatic close to the suite.

Submitted by Bobby on August 11th, 2011 — 05:48pm

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