Branford Marsalis Helps Bring Charlotte Symphony and Subscribers Back Together at Last

Review:  Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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More than 15 months had elapsed since my wife Sue and I had sat together at Belk Theater and enjoyed a Charlotte Symphony concert – exactly 15 months since we had seen Gabriella Martinez with the orchestra on Valentine’s Day at Knight Theater. Needless to say, much had changed since our last night out in Uptown Charlotte. Until we turned off the I-287 innerbelt onto College Street, we had no idea what a solemn concrete canyon the Center City has become – because the explosion of new buildings, high-rises, penthouses, and parking garages has hit us while foot traffic on a Friday night remains nearly extinct. Fortunately, we had allowed for extra travel time as we made our way to the landmark “Branford Marsalis Plays Ibert” concert, for the capricious Saturday night traffic was as heavy as usual, doubling our surprise when we left I-77. There wasn’t a Hornets basketball game scheduled that night, so we were among the first to enter the BankAmerica parking garage, with hundreds of spaces to choose from.

Thwarted by travel restrictions that kept him on the other side of the Atlantic, Christopher Warren-Green was unable to preside over our auspicious reunion, so resident conductor Christopher James Lees was called into action, acquitting himself quite brilliantly. Attendance for the concert was capped at 500, about 24% of capacity, and our tickets had been channeled to the Apple Wallet app on my iPhone, which the usher firing his QR scanner gun was able to wield better than I. We were so eager to enter the hall and see the CSO again that I forgot to get an exit parking stub in the lobby, but there was no crowd lined up for them after the concert when I did remember. Masking was still in effect for everyone except wind players, so it was helpful to find staff at their customary posts in the lobby – at the ticket booths and at the entry to the grand tier – so we could recognize and happily greet one another.

Marsalis, the Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, would be playing Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot-Sonate in addition to Jacques Ibert’s Concertino da camera, so there was plenty to bone up on in our seats before the lights went down. Sadly, there were no program booklets to assist our preparations, only the sort of glossy 5”x8” cards subscribers will remember from the pre-pandemic KnightSounds series. An informational email from the ticket office had popped into my inbox that afternoon, which contained a link to a PDF version of a 24-page program booklet. If you’re among the lucky 500 attending the sold-out concerts, you’re covered.

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Filled out by Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances and Gershwin’s Lullaby for string orchestra, the program was an adventurous delight from start to finish – about an hour in length, as promised in that handy email, without an intermission. Bartók was particularly shortchanged by the abbreviated program handouts, for the names and tempos of his six Folk Dances couldn’t fit on the same card with all the movements Marsalis would be playing. Even if the Bartók movements had been listed they would hardly be indicative of what we would see and hear. Until the penultimate “Poargă românească (Romanian Polka): Allegro,” the dances weren’t at all festive. The “Brâul (Sash Dance): Allegro” was rather poignant, despite its nimble pace, and the “Pê-loc (Stamping Dance): Andante” was actually bleak. Even the gorgeous “Buciumeana (Hornpipe Dance): Moderato” had a forlorn fiddler-on-the-roof sadness to it. Otherwise, what was surprising was the extent that all these arrangements by Arthur Willner were miniature violin concertos, here featuring concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, who was especially impressive high up in the treble of the “Stamping Dance.”

A nice array of winds and brass – including principals Victor Wang on flute, French hornist Byron Johns, and trumpeter Alex Wilborn – joined the strings onstage as Marsalis made his first appearance. Beginning with “quarter note = 66,” the movement markings in Schulhoff’s concerto for alto saxophone were deceptively fussy and clinical, for the heat of the Hot-Sonate came from jazz, just emerging from its raucous childhood when this suite was composed in 1930. Originally written for sax and piano, the arrangement by Harry Kinross White is most beguiling in its bluesy third movement, where the horns added an astringent accompaniment. Quaintly described by the composer “lamentuoso ma molto grottesco (plaintive, but very grotesque),” this “quarter note = 80” movement delivered the deepest jazz flavor, and I could easily imagine Johnny Hodges, on leave from Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, playing its premiere. Unfortunately, Schulhoff’s idea of the grotesque was no more edgy than his grasp of the alto saxophone’s capabilities. Despite the undeniable appeal of the music, Marsalis wasn’t really tested by the demands of Hot-Sonate.

Gershwin’s Lullaby, not jazzy at all, was a perfect palate cleanser between the two Marsalis stints. The strings wafted a tropical lightness that had a “Catch a Falling Star” lilt and laziness. Little showcases were set aside for the string section leaders, most notably Lupanu and cellist Alan Black, and the piece ended deliciously in bubbly geniality, with rounds of delicate pizzicatos. Absent during the Gershwin, horns and winds reasserted themselves forcefully in the Concertino da camera, originally scored by Ibert for 12 instruments, including the soloist, with only five string players. Marsalis was noticeably more tasked now, from the opening Allegro con moto movement onwards: more speed, more range, more complexity, and more technique were required from him, while the vibrant accompaniment offered more distractions. There’s actually some percussion from the strings amid this opening movement, but I was so focused on Marsalis and his unmasked accompanists that I didn’t notice which string players were tapping their bows.

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An achingly lovely, oboe-like lament by Marsalis began the Larghetto section, with the strings gradually creeping in ever-so-stealthily behind him. Extra strings, 22 in all, were a definite asset here as the music swelled. Wang’s flute and Wilborn’s trumpet had the most impact behind Marsalis as we cheerfully swung into the concluding Animato. Though often labeled as separate movements on CDs (including Branford’s recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in 2000), this concluding Larghetto-Animato was in itself like a three-movement concerto, for Marsalis drew a second cadenza between orchestral bursts that was far more demanding than anything he had played so far, nearly requiring circular breathing to execute its cascading, fleet-fingered runs. The audience was keenly attuned to the saxophonist’s virtuosity, for they gave him a lusty standing ovation when he was done, a judicious upgrade from the warm applause showered on the Schulhoff.

A wonderful evening, all in all, and a giant step back to normality.

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