Marsalis: Blues Symphony
Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by: André de Ridder
Michael Fowler Centre, 29th July 2023
Reviewed by: Dawn Brook
While not generally a fan of jazz, I thoroughly enjoyed the jazz idioms of this concert. From the enthusiastic applause throughout, I’d say the whole audience absolutely loved it.
The concert evidenced an attempt by American composers over many years to achieve some integration of the spontaneity and soundscapes of traditional American jazz and blues music with classical forms. The concert opened with Bryce Dessner’s 2020 work Mari, followed by George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony (2009).
Mari (Mari being the Basque forest goddess) was notable for its textures and sonic washes punctuated by small bites of more distinct sound, the whole evoking a forest, peaceful but teeming with buzzing, budding life. Rhapsody in Blue starts with a stunning glissando on the clarinet, which is then joined by trombone, horns, strings, and saxophone before the piano makes its entry. These beginnings are magical and the magic never stops. The music is, by turns, teasing, marching, thundering, lyrical, luscious, and spunky. It is irresistible. The piano soloist was Australian Simon Tedeschi, romantic, nonchalant, and virtuosic to suit the moment.
The Blues Symphony is something else again. It is huge: seven movements, an hour long, and alive every minute. It traverses several aspects of American music – jazz, blues, rag, and Latin dance. Horns, trumpets with wah-wah mutes, bassoons, saxophones, clarinets, and a variety of percussion, including hand clapping, provided much of the colour and drama. The strings were less dominant than in most classical compositions, but the double basses were in the thick of it and looked like they were having a ball.
André de Ridder was vigorous, emphatic, and expressive in his conducting, and a joy to watch as he danced his way through the programme. He could be well pleased with the orchestra’s performance.