The spirits of Edward “Duke” Ellington, William “Count” Basie, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and Art Tatum hovered gently over a splendidly satisfying concert in the Tanglewood Shed on August 15. Bounding rhythms of 1920s and 1930s jazz inspired both the afternoon’s composers and Maestro Robert Spano, a fine choice to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra through the many delights and sensibilities of this quintessentially American music. Four works by three composers framed the tour, beginning and ending with the greatest synthesizer of jazz and classics, George Gershwin (An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in F with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, soloist). The other offerings were by the redoubtable composer and jazz scholar Gunther Schuller (Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee) and long-time Tanglewood faculty member Leonard Bernstein (Prelude Fugue and Riffs for clarinet and jazz ensemble, with the BSO’s Thomas Martin, soloist.)
An American in Paris led off with typical Gershwin pentatonic themes. Virtuosic solo work by English horn Robert Sheena gave, in just a few nuanced notes, the fulcrum that shifted the balance from traffic jam to blues. Breathy melismas by principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs infused the “Bess, You Is My Woman” theme with deep passion. Using subtle dynamics rather than smears, principal tuba Mike Roylance invested the blue thirds and sevenths with sad poignancy in his long, rubato solo.
Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee evoked the sound and spirit of bandleader and composer Duke Ellington in his musical description of the Klee drawing, “Little Blue Devil.”
As Larry Wolfe walked the pizzicato bass line and woodwind and trombone choirs riffed over a swinging cymbal rhythm, an extended cup-muted trumpet solo summoned the marvelous horn talk of James “Bubber” Miley. In the other movements, idiosyncratic orchestral settings and subtly articulated contrapuntal lines created delicious, shifting harmonic effects.
In the movement entitled “Abstract Trio,” flutter-tonguing flutes and streaking clarinets danced over a softly growling French horn. Klee’s curious “Twittering Machine” squeaked around, bearing a chattering aviary of muted trumpets, woodblock, piccolo, and sliding trombones, all immersed in a warm atmosphere of tremolo strings, and superbly animated by Spano’s ratcheting stick-work
In “Arabian Town,” we eavesdropped on a conversation between BSO principal flute, Elizabeth Rowe, who stood within the natural resonating chamber formed by the portico before the left stage doors, and a male oboist who was seated before a harem of second violinists. After an introduction of affecting, quietly resonating string chords, Rowe brought a pensive melody to life with dynamic inflections and ornaments that suggested cool nights in the desert. Bringing the volume down to pianissimo, she held the house rapt. (This was one of those rare moments of absolute audience silence in the Shed.) Then suddenly, the oboe, in flagrant braggadocio, interrupted her. But standing her ground, she continued with wounded sadness, uttering soft trills that elevated her poetry to an ethereal plane, repeating, and repeating again scalloped lines in her lovely middle range, each time differently, with variations in volume, vibrato, and middle-Eastern intervals. Sustained strings and syncopated tympani appeared to affirm the logic of her point of view. Then the belligerent returned, loudly proclaiming, with the help of one of the kept violins and a convincing emulation of an oud, that his would be the last word. His solo leapt and crept around before settling into a menacing, low A drone. But ultimately the flute prevailed, never raising her sweet voice, considering and then maintaining a measure of feminine autonomy over gently bowed strings. Magic!
“Pastorale” evoked the subtle colors of agrarian villages. Brief melodies and contrapuntal encounters from clarinet, English horn, and French horn led to a splendid clarinet cadenza by BSO principal William Hudgins that circled down into the lowest range and spiraled upward in stunning arpeggios, greeting the piccolo in animated conversation. This joyful solo and interplay evoked the tension between individualism and community, tempered by mutual respect and the collective need to survive, that holds villages together. The economy of Klee’s layered drawing, with houses, colors, and geometric rhythms immersed in muted shadings, and Schuller’s spare orchestration spoke volumes. Not one unnecessary line, note, nor point of emphasis was sounded in this splendid performance.
Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs utilized a band of five saxophones, piano, trap drums, seated trombones, and standing trumpets. The precisely accented, swinging drumming and the creamy lead alto sax brought to mind the great Count Basie powerhouses, Jo Jones and Marshal Royal. But Bernstein gave equal tribute to the European composers who made such brilliant use of jazz equipment and language —Darius Milhaud (La Creation du Monde) and Igor Stravinsky (Ragtime for Eleven Instruments) — through intricate rhythmic shifts, blue notes, ragged lines, filigreed counterpoint, and unpredictable solo excursions on piano, trumpet, and, above all, clarinet. BSO principal contrabass Edwin Barker’s accelerated pizzicato lines pushed clarinetist Martin to soaring phrases redolent of Benny Goodman at the height of his power; Martin’s heartfelt blues inflections were worthy of Pee Wee Russell in the depth of his cups. As the piece drew to a close, Maestro Spano conjured a big band in full cry, wailing before a crowd of committed fans. His was the kind of identification and shared passion with which Ellington and Basie spurred their bandsmen to the best they could produce.
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, sporting a well cut, black mini-morning coat, open white shirt with a high collar that tickled his mandible, and spiked hair, inhabited the Gershwin piano concerto with the same kind of intense focus that he brought to the Ravel concerto several Tanglewood seasons back. The man plays the piano as well as he dresses, but who would have thought that his heart was in jazz?
Through this curious and challenging work, with its repeated references to the showy pianistic devices of the great New York “Stride” players James P. Johnson and Eubie Blake and the New Orleans pianist and bandleader Jelly Roll Morton, Thibaudet made eye contact with individual players in the orchestra, establishing the rapport that brings out the best in jazz improvisation, digging his solo lines into those of the sections. He was having a ball, and the orchestra was infected by it. Immediately, he provoked unexpected expressions of delight among both musicians and audience. His danceable treatment of Gershwin’s “Charleston” (the original composed by the father of “Stride” piano, James P. Johnson) provoked the players to tap their feet. The three-over-four-beat hemiola that evoked Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” was played slowly and elegantly, and it swung all the more for the understatement. Here, Thibaudet moved the inhabitants of the Shed to do the shoulder-shift in their chairs. During the second movement blues, he rocked his head from side to side, deeply immersed in its feeling. In the final Allegro agitato, over an eight-to-the-bar rhythm, Thibaudet ignited a firestorm of multiply-struck notes in the middle range of the piano, tuning in precisely to the underpinning meter, using visual checks to bring the basses along in the excitement, and easing into the final crescendo with dynamic nuances that filtered through the orchestra like laser beams.
In this brilliantly accomplished performance, it was clear that Thibaudet was giving special tribute to Art Tatum. His precisely controlled, liquid arpeggios and carefully woven inner lines of the blues were instantly recognizable from Tatum’s celebrated improvisation on Dvorak’s Humoresque. Tatum himself improvised a send-up of that very firestorm in the middle of his 1949 eight-to-the-bar fast blues, “Tatum-Pole Boogie,” one of his most technically spectacular improvised performances. (Listen to it here:)
Gunther Schuller’s appreciation of Tatum’s prodigious technique is notable in this regard, both because his “Seven Studies” reveal such a deep comprehension of the structure and method of jazz and because of the manifest influence of Tatum on Thibaudet’s style and jazz technique: “The effortless gliding of his hands over difficult passages puzzled most who witnessed the phenomenon. He especially mystified other pianists to whom Tatum appeared to be playing the impossible.” Apropos of the impossible, one can see what Schuller is talking about in this transcription of the last improvised chorus of “Tatum-Pole Boogie” that takes the form of a tribute to the Stride masters James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, and especially in its astounding coda. Who can play a sweep of descending thirds like these and runs like these? (note: Your reviewer attests to the accuracy of his transcriptions.)
This deeply satisfying concert filled one with respect for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s versatility and stylistic flexibility, Robert Spano’s inspired direction, and both Thomas Martin’s and Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s virtuosity. It was also one of those days when American pride filled the Tanglewood Shed, as two great musical traditions melded seamlessly together.