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Gaia: BSO in a Shorter Symphony

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A jazz quartet with one-of-a-kind vocalist-bassist, esperanza spalding, and the BSO with Clark Rundell contributed to “Celebrating the Symphonic Legacy of Wayne Shorter” Thursday evening. Many have heard the 12-time Grammy Award winning saxophonist forging music of African-American origin since the mid-20th century. Up until his passing in 2023 at age 89, Shorter collaborated with the best in his sphere. And beyond: “To me, Gaia, is the planet we live on, and the fact that we’re all here is symbolic of the limitless description of what life is all about.”

One of several of this season’s subscription concerts riding fresher tracks pulled into Symphony Hall to a welcoming crowd awaiting a live journey with Shorter’s music and some of the musicians who have played and worked with him. Among them were pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and esperanza spalding also librettist and composer; stepping in rounding out the quartet, saxophonist Dayna Stephens.

Conductor-orchestrater-arranger Rundell recalled a conference with Shorter on tempo that prompted a quizzical response: “It’s like the aliens are attacking from outer space and the parents are really, really scared—but the children think it’s incredibly cool.” While the tempo marking, Marcia, appears atop the score to Forbidden, Plan-It!, no such tempo guidance is given for the 25 carefully hand-written pages of Orbits. Extra-terrestrial marching in 1987 fusion style and sphinxlike circling in 1967 post-bop blared out at Symphony Hall in re-colorized symphonics. Much of Shorter’s harmonies in Forbidden were lost to overpowering brass and heavy tuba. Shorter’s extended even-keeled unison melody of Orbits survived despite overly played underpinning. In moments where the jazz quartet broke into improvising, especially with the fetching soprano sax of Dayna Stephens, the Shorter I grew up listening to came to mind.

Introductory remarks on the four shorter pieces coming in the first half of this BSO celebration surprised; esperanza spaulding’s stage ways proved inviting in all ways. She spoke of Shorter’s interest in fantasy, his finding phrases he thought of as elusive as life: “Dusk began to fall, but it was already midnight in Carlotta’s hair.” High life, blues, instrumental exclamations, wordless vocals melded in a sensuous elusiveness; Midnight in Carlotta’s Hair, still in a big space, harmony’s hues remained more difficult to catch than they should have been.

(Iphigenia) Suite No. 1, libretto by spaulding, concert suite and arrangement by Rundell for orchestra and jazz trio with vocalist premiered in Boston in 2021. Three scenes taken from Shorter’s opera, the first revealing Iphigenia as not herself (in operatic voice), the second as her being urged to find herself, and third where she finds herself (in a kind of scat singing). Considerably longer, inscrutable instrumental sections outweighed soloist spaulding. Orchestral imbalances, even if toned down, and the strange sounding amplified piano often implied being somewhere other than BSO’s home.

When Rundell asked if he could orchestrate Causeways, Shorter consented, “Do it. Just make it even more mysterious.” Curiously, advancing much-needed transparency, Rundell’s scoring, coupled with the ostinato dance rhythm, instead demystified this orchestral re-coloring. Mostly throughout the concert, Shorter placed the listener in a fixed state as if gazing at a vast sky though seeking to see beyond it. All but in Gaia, came the short fade, a quieting, signaling an end to the piece and return to consciousness.

The towering near half-hour Gaia for jazz quartet and orchestra, coming late in his career, may have reached the summit of Shorter’s life in music. Reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s deep-rooted Christian compositions and of John Coltrane’s spiritual journey, his A Love Supreme, Wayne Shorter’s Gaia (earth), imbued with Buddhism, rang out before Symphony Hall’s willing and accepting. wider that usual range of listeners. Attacking aliens and sphinxes now mere shadows in a symphony, or what could be a concerto—or both—joined an ecstatically voiced jazz quartet and full orchestra “symbolic of the limitless description of what life is all about.” Buckling up and sitting back for a trip into bliss, the fog from the symphonics heard earlier in the evening lifted. One of the transports of delights was not knowing just what notes the composer drafted on paper with pen and ruler and just what notes were left to the improvisor. If a certain opaqueness permeated the massively designed work, then call it his idea of the cosmic, his forever reaching for the transcendent.

esperanza spalding cannot be missed . . . a spectacular voice, a fulfilling message.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chair of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer).  www.notescape.net
Wayne Shorter Program with Clark Rundell, esperanza spalding, Leo Genovese, Dayna Stephens, and Terri Lyne Carrington (Hilary Scott photo)

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