During the last century, no musical form shook up the world more than jazz. It even influenced the visual arts, as evidenced by a vividly illustrated book called Jazz by Henri Matisse.
That book provides the starting point for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's latest Explorer Series program, which promises a musical experience as boldly colored as the stenciled prints Matisse created using cutouts of painted paper.
On the bill: Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 2, Age of Anxiety, premiered in 1949, two years after Matisse's Jazz was produced; Michael Torke's Bright Blue Music, a kinetic work from 1985 that suggests an aural version of a Matisse piece; and Leopold Stokowski's prismatic transcription of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
For James Judd, the British-born conductor who will be on the podium for this BSO exploration, a common thread of the program is the way "a musical theme is constantly changing and embellished, but remains visible. You see it in the Torke work," Judd says, "and in Bach."
Stokowski, a conductor whose fame rivaled that of Arturo Toscanini, started writing full-scale arrangements of Bach keyboard pieces in the 1920s (the "Jazz Age," incidentally), applying a full, Matisse-worthy palette of a modern orchestra's instrumental colors.
"I grew up playing the C minor Passacaglia and Fugue on the organ, or at least trying to," Judd says. "It's still one of my favorite pieces. The Passacaglia is really a kind of written-out improvisation. And what's that, if not a connection with jazz?"
In the case of Bright Blue Music, Torke has explained in his own program note that composing it led him to "an unexpected freedom of expression. ... With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. The feeling of working was exuberant; I would leave my outdoor studio, and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed bright blue."
The music's strong pulse - Torke is one of today's most rhythmically compelling composers - offers its own connection to jazz ("There's an organized freedom to it that sounds improvised," Judd says), while the aural characteristics easily relate back to Matisse.
"When I looked at the score of Bright Blue Music, which is brilliantly written," Judd says, "I got an image of how incredibly bright the reflections of the sun on water can be. And it's fascinating to know that Matisse, who was ill when he did his cutouts for the Jazz book, asked for heavily tinted glasses to protect his eyesight because the colors were so bright - incredible blues, purples, pinks. Torke's music has the same shimmery, almost blinding quality at times."
In the case of the Bernstein symphony, inspired by W.H. Auden's poem Age of Anxiety, there is plenty of color and musical development to savor, as well as a movement called "Masque" filled with what the composer described in his program note as "hectic jazz." The jazzy element is underlined by a prominent solo piano part in the score. (William Wolfram, who played the symphony last week in Singapore with Judd, will be the BSO's soloist.)
"What the Bernstein piece is mostly about is a search for faith and truth, which is what Bach is all about as well, and Matisse, too, in his way," Judd says. "There are many layers to this symphony, actually; there is a lot more going on than meets the eye."
Judd describes Age of Anxiety as "a journey."
"Conducting this is like wandering down a street, looking through doors leading to so many different worlds and experiences - a temple, a church, a shop, a sleazy bar," Judd says. "It all ends with a vision of hope.
"And Bernstein uses so many colors in the piece, starting with just two lonely clarinets, an utterly beguiling effect. The symphony is so rich and fulfilling, and it has an incredible palette."
BSO and the Jazz of Matisse is at 8 tonight at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $43 to $78 at Strathmore, $25 to $75 at Meyerhoff. Call 410-783-8000 or 877-276-1444 or visit baltimoresymphony.org.