Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3) received its UK premiere last night with the London Symphony Orchestra joining forces with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
Conducting without the score for the opening performance of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances it was a bit like being under the knife of the most remarkable surgeon in the world: the orchestra and the audience mere putty in his hands, the outcome never in doubt.
Wynton came on to the stage at the beginning of the second half almost in disguise, as the momentarily distracted audience settling into their seats took a while to spot the great New Orleansian as he walked to his seat right in the middle of the trumpet section of JALCO in front of the conductor’s podium, with the LSO spread out all around the jazz orchestra.
‘All Rise’ and ‘Blues Symphony’, the work’s predecessors paradoxically given that they were called that most classical of forms, ‘symphonies’, were actually experimental music in the sense that Wynton was trying out his solutions to orchestrating for symphony orchestra and jazz band. Neither succeeded particularly beyond their ambition and initial impact at the time, and I’m sure most fans of Wynton’s as well as critics see them more of a curiosity than say the oratorio Blood on the Fields, a much more significant achievement despite its massive length. Swing Symphony is different, a notch up in terms of the art of the composer, although the jury’s out as to whether it will be any more significant than say the likeable score Marsalis composed for Dan Pritzker’s silent film, Louis.
The symphony’s obvious sophistication and the multiple inspirations it summons, from ragtime and plantation dance forms, through Fletcher Henderson to Ellington, shares at least these links in common with the earlier works among the active ingredients at play. The heart of the matter, though, in his work is the parallel lines of the harmony, the scrabbling indeterminacy of the juxtaposing of chromaticism with classic song-like saxophone solos, at others echoing Leonard Bernstein in terms of romanticism, or Aaron Copland occasionally but as ever owing its creative core to Ellington. But without wishing to be trite, where were the tunes? Answer, for the most part absent, although one or two seemed to peep through which Ellington was always adept at drawing out. While Rachmaninov used the brass instruments in his Symphonic Dances only sparingly Marsalis liberally calls them into the action. Yet the carefully sculpted solo space for jazz tenor saxophone and clarinet and good use of the strings involved both orchestras to best effect, with the LSO zealous in their determination to enter into an accord with the spirit of the endeavour firmly intact.
Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3) is performed again tonight by the London Symphony Orchestra and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JALCO, above), conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. www.barbican.org.uk