Friday, June 1, 2007

American Dreams


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano conducting
Gregg Baker, baritone
Marcus Roberts Trio, jazz trio
   Richard Danielpour: Pastime (2006)
   George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
   Aaron Copland: Symphony No. 3
Thu/Sat, 31 May/2 June 2007, 8:00 p.m.
and Sun, 3 June 2007, 3:00 p.m.
Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
[Review is of the Thursday performance.]

American symphonic music has at times been obsessed with how it might identify itself as “truly American”—at once distancing itself from European symphonic, while retaining some connection to its traditions, and trying (if desperately at times) to both embrace both a shifting American popular culture while trying to declare what about that culture is consistently American from generation to generation.

Richard Danielpour’s “Pastime,” opened the program. It is an attractive occasional piece, hanging its populism on arguably that most American of sports, baseball, and the victory of 3 notable African-Americans who played it as professionals. Not only victory in the sport itself—but victory and achievement within a sports culture which, at the time, involved strong racial boundaries, whether subtle or not.

Five movements in all, totaling 22 minutes, “Pastime” celebrates baseball icons Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson, and Henry Aaron (who was present in the audience). The three movements in the middle each represented one of these gentlemen, while the two outer movements celebrated the sport itself. The texts by poet Michael S. Harper were not used in their entirety by the composer, but the program notes included all of the unused portions in square brackets, generously allowing the audience a look at a composer's deliberate choices when setting words to music. Upon encountering the poem “Blackjack,” about Jackie Robinson, composer Richard Danielpour approached Harper about writing more poems so he could set them to music. Although reticent at first, Harper produced a group of 9 more poems from which Danielpour chose four to complete his libretto for “Pastime.”

Danielpour was ideal for the task, as he is a genuine baseball fan. As a youngster, the New York City native actually was a batboy for the Atlanta Braves, during 3 years of spring training in Florida, when Hank Aaron was a player. The program book includes a wonderful photo of young Richard, replete with Yankees jacket and cap, on the bench with Aaron in the Braves’ dugout.

The opening music is modeled, with abandon, on raucous New Orleans jazz. The middle movements back off to leave room for a declamatory rendering of the texts: Gibson, begins smoky and ethereal; Robinson, warmly open harmonies; Aaron, more energetic in a somewhat Bernstein-like manner. The conclusion, Gershwin-esque and jaunty, including what seemed to be a brief, prismatic National Anthem parody (the “by the dawn’s early light” phrase).

The vocal part, appearing in all movements, was clearly and confidently delivered by baritone soloist Gregg Baker, who delivered the meaning of the streaming, colliding words with both vocal expressiveness and on-target facial gestures which were not overstated. At the very end, when the orchestra played their final punctuated chord, it's Baker’s eyes alone which gesture up and right, and the audience knows unquestionably that someone has just hammered a big one that's headed over the fence.

It may seem only natural that George Gershwin remains the eternal poster child for orchestral jazz, despite the fact that his music, and interest in popular genres of his day, exceeded the boundaries of his Tin Pan Alley reputation. One of the problems of tagging Gershwin's popular inspirations only as “jazz” is that it ignores his occasional use of Latin genres, such as Cuban and Mexican music. This is true of his too-popular “Rhapsody in Blue,” a misunderstanding which leads most frequently to “conventional” performances in which the pianist lopes along in cutesy pseudo-swingy triplets where Gershwin intended absolutely none (and never played them himself), just because someone assumes: “Oh, this is supposd to be jazz.”

That doesn’t mean that Gershwin’s music should never be subjected to rendition beyond original intention. Such was the case in this concert where the work seemed a laboratory, placing a post-WWII style jazz trio as “soloist” into the pre-WWII “big band”-emulating work. The result was like a shoe salesman trying to insert a size 13 foot of a New York Knicks center into Cinderella’s glass slipper. It doesn’t really fit, regardless of how truly interesting the foot may be.

The problem was not one of Gershwin’s music being bowdlerized by a hot jazz trio. Rather, it was the other way around. The orchestra should have simply been left out of it entirely, and let the Trio do its thing.

That Trio was the Marcus Roberts Trio—pianist Marcus Roberts with bassist Roland Guerrin, and drummer Jason Masalis. Left to their own devices, the group, and especially pianist Roberts, took Gershwin’s musical materials more than a few wonderfully creative steps beyond the norm, incorporating adventurous modern jazz, some romantic classical elements, and even a fresh though brief nod to the left-hand stride playing.

But trio and orchestra were birds of different feather, and did not really mesh most of the time. Sometimes rhythmic patterns between Marsalis’ more modern playing and Gershwin’s orchestral stylizations were conflicting, most greatly at odds when the composer calls for a popular style of his day that is not “jazz” per se. For example, the Mexican “mariachi” section that almost no orchestral conductor (save perhaps Michael Tilson Thomas) ever recognizes for what it really is. Other segments also suffered from similar conflicts.

Nevertheless, the audience enjoyed the heck out of Roberts' Trio. Next time, if there is one, it would be better to just let them run by themselves, without a leash. Otherwise, perform the “Rhapsody” with plain-old piano soloist in a manner closer to what the composer intended (and himself demonstrably played).

But there is yet another, and far more attractive alternative: Why not an entirely new rhapsody or concerto intended for jazz trio and orchestra, which successfully addresses the true potentials of such a combination? One can easily envision a piece which provides both a framework for extensive, free impovization by the jazz trio and likewise a more seamlessly engaged role for the orchestra. Perhaps Robert Spano will keep that idea in his pocket for the future.

After intermission, Spano conducted Aaron Copland’s “Symphony #3,” a textbook example of the post-war struggle to define an “American symphony” in contrast to the genre's European counterparts. The 4th movement, with the musical material that’s also used in “Fanfare for the Common Man,” went especially well.

The "Symphony No. 3" is just over 60 years old, yet hearing Copland’s music was refreshing in a somewhat retrospective way. It was a reminder of concepts about our American identity; one which represented a culture that some of us actually remember, and miss, even if only as idyllic. True, it is a snapshot of a time which did ignore some of its more latent, brooding, and troubling aspects, despite its joyous, often folksy optimistism. But today, perhaps, now that many of those cultural issues have seen significant progress, it is perhaps all the more unfortuate to look back just how much of that important core of American idealism we've thrown out the in the process (accidentally or not). Hopefully, it is something we as Americans can ultimately recapture, and as a result recover and renew some of out lost identity as a nation.

—Mark Gresham, composer/music journalist 27 May 2007

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's website can be found at

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