Last night’s CSO/Robertson/Marsalis concert: Best & Worst
Oct 17, 2007
Last night I heard The Chicago SO/David Robertson in a program that equaled the best and worst I’ve heard from the orchestra in recent years.
First, the bad part--Copland’s clarinet (tonight, soprano sax) concerto, with Branford Marsalis the soloist on soprano sax. I like Branford Marsalis. He’s made some terrific jazz recordings over the years. But from the moment he entered the Copland on soprano sax, I was cringing. And Robertson’s fast tempo made the whole thing sound glib and very superficial. That first movement is one of my favorite things Copland ever wrote, and I have never enjoyed it less. Marsalis’s tone was hard, his intonation occasionally off, and he even had a couple of reed squeaks. But it was his tone, more than anything, that really made it a chore to listen to. I even found myself questioning Robertson's judgment in trying to pull it off. The soprano sax is not one of my favorite jazz instruments in the first place. Beyond Bechet (who I adore), Coltrane, Steve Lacy, and a couple avant gardists--and none of them would sound good in the Copland either--I generally steer away (even from Wayne Shorter, one of my favorite tenor players, when he picks up the soprano). I can only think of one jazz soprano sax player who I think might be able to do justice to the Copland, and that’s John Surman. Hell, he could probably to it justice playing baritone sax (don’t laugh if you’ve never heard Surman’s high-register playing on baritone).
However, Marsalis, I thought, sounded great in the Debussy Rhapsody for alto sax and orchestra. His tone was gorgeous, and the orchestra sounded wonderful.
There was an encore that was also excellent. Larry Combs (who should’ve done the Copland in the first place) came out and joined Marsalis and CSO bassist Robert Kassinger for a trio rendition of Monk’s Blue Monk. Comb’s is not a classical musician who simply noodles when playing jazz--he’s actually a good jazz player. (The last time I heard him in that context was improvising in duets with Buddy DeFranco). They seemed to enjoy themselves, and made some good music together.
And the best came last--Adams’ Harmonielehre. This was the first piece I ever heard by a ‘minimalist’ that I actually thought was a great piece of music, back in the mid’80s when the San Francisco/deWart recording came out on Nonesuch (it was one of my first CDs). A few weeks ago in preparation for the concert, I pulled out that disc and listened to it a bunch of times, which deepened my appreciation for it, but also brought out deficiencies in the performance I hadn’t noticed before, especially in the strings. I was hoping Robertson and the CSO would improve on that recording.
And they sure did--it was a stunning performance. I’ve only heard Robertson one other time in concert, about 4 years ago, doing the Nielsen 4th (also with the CSO), unfortunately during the period when the orchestra wasn’t allowing their concerts to be recorded for broadcast. (If anyone has an in-house recording of that one, please join OperaShare!) That was one of the best CSO concerts I’ve ever heard, and this Harmonielehre was on that level. The orchestra was simply magnificent, and I left with an even greater love for the piece. I can’t wait for the broadcast!