Like a neighbor's big, playful dog running into your manicured flowerbed, jazz invaded the staid realm of classical music early in the 20th century and stirred things up good. Even some bred-in-the-Brahms composers found it hard to ignore the syncopated rhythms and saucy chords. Music with one foot in classical traditions, one foot in jazz soon materialized; such music is still being written.
Examples of this cross-pollination provide the main hook for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest Symphony With a Twist program, conducted by Thomas Wilkins and featuring sax virtuoso Branford Marsalis. As Wilkins says, the concert is not so much about crossover as synthesis. Although the choice and ordering of selections could be more cohesive, there isn't a dull moment.
There was, however, a rather dull crowd Thursday night at Meyerhoff Hall, the kind that tired easily when applauding. Maybe folks were still numb from the cold outside.
Marsalis took a while to warm up himself. He started on soprano sax in an arrangement of the Pie Jesu movement from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem. Webber doesn't have a jazz bone in his body, but this item does have an awfully irresistible melody, and Marsalis has recorded it. So there. He didn't do much with the piece here, though; neither his tone nor his phrasing registered deeply.
The Fantasia by Heitor Villa-Lobos isn't about jazz, either; it's about using the ultimate jazz instrument, the sax, for virtuosity and color in a formal concert work. A little more polish would have been welcome, but Marsalis negotiated the alternately busy and lyrical score neatly (well, the last note got away from him).
He hit peak form when, switching to alto sax, he closed the program with Jacques Ibert's Concertino da Camera - the essence of symphonic jazz (or jazzy classics), a vibrant synthesis of diverse styles and devices. Marsalis charged into the rollicking parts fearlessly, purred through the second movement elegantly. The cadenza was delivered with disarming bravura.
Wilkins proved an adept partner for Marsalis and had the orchestra playing with a good deal of flair. Noah Chaves effectively tapped the melancholy vein of the viola solo in the Fantasia.
Other noteworthy solo efforts throughout the evening included pianist Eric Conway's kinetic outbursts in George Antheil's A Jazz Symphony (one of the most inventive and amusing jazz/classical creations) and flutist Elizabeth Rowe's gentle phrasing in Gabriel Faure's Pavane. Nothing jazzy about the latter, bittersweet piece, but it made a neat contrast with the jaunty Pavane from Morton Gould's American Symphonette.
Wilkins, who revealed quite a droll streak in remarks to the crowd, got things rolling with a short, brightly played excerpt from Duke Ellington's The River. Brighter still was the performance of Michael Daugherty's Flamingo, which gets a lot of mileage from two tambourines (enthusiastically played by the BSO's Christopher Williams and John Locke) and some snappy melodic riffs. There's no mistaking the jazz beneath that flamingo's wings.
What: Symphony With a Twist
Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8 tonight
Tickets: Limited availablity