Program Note: Swing, Swagger & Sway

Violin Concerto in D (2015)

Wynton Marsalis

Born: 18 October 1961 in New Orleans


Jazz superstar Wynton Marsalis is equally at home in the worlds of big band jazz, bebop, gospel, Afro-Caribbean, and classical music. Initially known as a virtuoso trumpeter, he has branched out to teaching and composition, promoting both jazz and classical music to audiences of all ages. He studied both classical music and jazz as a boy; his teacher for the latter was his father, a noteworthy jazz pianist. At age 17, he was admitted to Tanglewood Music Center – the youngest person ever to do so. He continued his education at Juilliard and embarked on a career that combined both classical and jazz. Marsalis began recording his original compositions in the 1980s with various jazz ensembles. Since the 1990s he has expanded his composition diaspora, writing – among other works – The Octoroon Balls for string quartet; ballet scores for choreographers Peter Martins, Twyla Tharp, and Judith Jamison; four symphonies, and a Violin Concerto for the Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti.

This weekend’s soloist, Tessa Lark, has embraced Marsalis’s Violin Concerto and made it central to her own repertoire. Its four movements – Rhapsody, Rondo Burlesque, Blues, and Hootenanny – are a compendium of Americana, traversing myriad musical styles and drawing on popular music as well as classical traditions. Marsalis has written:

Scored for symphony orchestra, with tremendous respect for the demands of that instrument, [the concerto] is nonetheless written from the perspective of a jazz musician and New Orleans bluesman. We believe that all human beings are connected in the essential fundamentals of life: birth, death, love, and laughter; that our most profound individual experiences are also universal (especially pain); and that acknowledging the depth of that pain in the context of a groove is a powerful first step towards healing.

[Violinist Nicola Benedetti] asked me to “invite a diverse world of people into the experience of this piece.” Because finding and nurturing common musical ground between differing arts and musical styles has been a lifetime fascination of mine, I was already trying to welcome them. It may seem simple enough, but bringing different perspectives together is never easy. The shared vocabulary between the jazz orchestra and the modern orchestra sits largely in the areas of texture and instrumental technique. Form, improvisation, harmony, and methods of thematic development are very different. The biggest challenges are: how to orchestrate the nuance and virtuosity in jazz and blues for an ensemble not versed in those styles (a technical issue); and how to create a consistent groove without a rhythm section (a musical/philosophical issue).

Because modern living is an integrated experience, it is never difficult to discover organic connections. Turning those insights into something meaningful and playable, however, is another story. It has to be lived and digested. That’s why I looked for real-life examples in the history of jazz–symphonic collaborations and to the environment and experience that connect Nicky and me. (In writing this piece for her), I considered aspects of her Scottish ancestry, the great Afro-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s love of legendary Scottish poet Robert Burns, my love and inextinguishable respect for Scottish baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (and his gleeful recitation of pungent limericks), and the luminous but obscure achievements of Afro-American keyed bugler Francis Johnson, father of the American cornet tradition and one of the first published American composers…who was also a fine fiddler. These sources led me to reconnect with the Anglo-Celtic roots of Afro-American music.

The piece opens with [the soloist] whispering a solo note before the orchestra enters as if to say “And so it came to pass” or “Once upon a time.” Then we are into a form constructed in fours–as in the four corners of the earth. . . .

Each of the four movements, Rhapsody, Rondo Burlesque, Blues, and Hootenanny, reveals a different aspect . . . which becomes reality through the public storytelling that is virtuosic performance.


Movement 1, Rhapsody, is a complex dream that becomes a nightmare, progresses into peacefulness and dissolves into ancestral memory.

Movement 2, Rondo Burlesque, is a syncopated, New Orleans jazz, calliope, circus clown, African gumbo, Mardi Gras party in odd meters.

Movement 3, Blues, is the progression of flirtation, courtship, intimacy, sermonizing, final loss and abject loneliness that is out there to claim us all.

Movement 4, Hootenanny, is a raucous, stomping and whimsical barnyard throw-down. She excites us with all types of virtuosic chicanery and gets us intoxicated with revelry and then… goes on down the Good King’s highway to other places yet to be seen or even foretold.


As in the blues and jazz tradition, our journey ends with the jubilance and uplift of an optimistic conclusion.                                – Wynton Marsalis

Marsalis’s four movements are a musical melting pot. The opening ‘Rhapsody’ shifts from a symphonic expansiveness to the raucous blare of a marching band – and sometimes superimposes the two. Listeners familiar with the music of iconic American composer Charles Ives will sense a kinship. This combination of disparate, incongruous elements turns out to be a harbinger of the entire piece. ‘Rondo Burlesque’ is a fast-paced romp that mixes perpetuum mobile, rapidly shifting rhythms, big band jazz, and a sardonic edge that flirts with echoes of Serge Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Leonard Bernstein.

‘Blues’ lives up to its name, enhanced by the warmth of sultry symphonic strings. Woodwinds and brass eventually join the party, emulating a gospel revival service.  Marsalis’s remarkable concerto concludes with a rousing ‘Hootenanny,’ an old-fashioned down-home hoedown, replete with foot-stamping and hand-clapping.  Country fiddling from both sides of the Atlantic keeps the dance lively, whipping up a frenzy of violin pyrotechnics before the soloist spins up, ever quieter, into the stratosphere.

All four movements incorporate solo cadenzas of varying lengths; the one for ‘Rondo Burlesque’ becomes a duet for violin and percussion.



Symphony in Three Movements

Igor Stravinsky

Born: 17 June 1882 in Oranienbaum, near St. Petersburg, Russia

Died: 6 April 1971 in New York


At the conclusion of World War II, Igor Stravinsky had switched homelands twice and was about to do so again. After spending his youth in Russia and much of his adult life in Switzerland and France, he settled in the United States and had undertaken steps to adopt American citizenship. Clearly, these were major decisions for him, and their imprint on his music is equally clear. With the Symphony in Three Movements, completed in 1945 and premiered in January 1946 (only weeks after the composer became an American citizen), Stravinsky consolidated the many influences to which he had been exposed during his nomadic years. The Symphony is at once an acknowledgment of war’s ending and a herald of the future, pointing the way to the remarkable and fruitful harvest of his maturity.

Initially, this work was planned as a piano concerto. Although it rapidly took on a more orchestral quality, the presence of the piano is integral to the Symphony’s character. Particularly in the strident first movement, the prominent piano part links it strikingly with Petrouchka, a ballet from half a lifetime beforehand. But other characteristics relate the work to Stravinsky’s “Neo-classical” period in the 1920s and early 1930s – a time when he explored the forms and musical style of the 18th century. In this work, the concertato style, pitting small groups of instruments in dialogue with one another and the motoric rhythmic patterns are reminiscent of Baroque music. The piece thus takes on the merged personalities of both symphony and concerto.

Even so, this work remains difficult to categorize. Stravinsky alluded to it as his “war symphony,” remarking in the book Memories and Commentaries:  “Each episode in the symphony is connected in my imagination to a concrete impression, most frequently on film, of the war.”  His observation is perceived most easily in the outer movements. The march beat of the finale, in particular, delivered with the punch of a brass band, evokes the unpleasant aural image of German troops. He insisted, however, that the piece was not programmatic:  “Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.”

While the jagged thrusts of the outer movements may leave the most vivid impression on our memories, the subtle approach of the slow movement deserves special attention. Stravinsky conceived of the harp and piano as equal instrumental protagonists in the symphony. Their polarity is deeply persuasive in the slow movement where an instrumental “aria” is aptly described by André Boucourechliev as “pure choreographic delight, sweetly Italianizing in the flute’s fioriture.”

Stravinsky scored the Symphony for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, bass drum, piano, harp, and strings.

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