There's so much that's so right about how the Minnesota Orchestra decided to open its 2022-23 season. Barriers between classical and jazz were torn down with the help of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. And a commitment to perform more works by composers of color was underlined by Wynton Marsalis' "Swing Symphony."
Pair it with a crowd-pleaser like Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story," and it's no wonder that Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall was almost full on Friday night.
Judging from the standing ovation at evening's end, most of the crowd was satisfied with the result. And the musicians deserved the response, for it was indeed a performance full of fine playing, the program a bold departure from your typical classical concert in so many ways. And what a joy to be reunited with conductor William Eddins, the orchestra's onetime associate conductor who proved an ebullient dynamo on the Bernstein and an ideal combination of control and abandon on the Marsalis.
Yet there was something notably missing from the "Swing Symphony" itself. I'm glad the orchestra opened its season with the first local performance of an hourlong work written in the 21st century, rather than an oft-played warhorse, but it didn't feel as new as it should have.
While the symphony is 12 years old, it seems much older. That's because it doesn't only nod in the direction of the past, it runs enthusiastically into its arms. The piece feels like a CliffsNotes version of the history of jazz, borrowing themes and chord progressions from one classic tune after another and presenting them in roughly chronological order. Hence, rather than a new work, it seems more a visit to a musical museum that doesn't offer any fresh insights about the past.
Oh, it was a joy to hear the Minnesota Orchestra's principal clarinetist, Gabriel Campos Zamora, soaring into the stratosphere above a stately ragtime landscape or channeling Benny Goodman on a raucous romp. And the percussion section got to show off its skills and energy on a variety of styles. What's more, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is full of splendid soloists, the saxophonists a standout when they stepped up to lower the temperature to an appropriate cool.
Yet, I wish I'd heard more of Marsalis' original voice. The "Swing Symphony" sounds like one homage after another, echoes of Duke Ellington sharing the stage with Count Basie, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, among several others.
Granted, most symphony orchestra concerts are akin to visiting a museum, sounds of a distant past usually on display. But I've heard the Minnesota Orchestra make much of that old music feel tremendously vital and emotionally powerful. And recordings of Parker and Coltrane can certainly spark the same sort of catharsis, their awe-inspiring imaginations creating fresh music on the fly.
Some of Friday's best solos came from Marsalis himself, bursting forth from the center of this big band that sat surrounded by the Minnesota Orchestra. If there was any one-upmanship at play within that ensemble, it was to see who could best summon up the spirit of a bygone era. Little sense was given that jazz is still a living, breathing art form.
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at email@example.com.
With: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and conductor William Eddins
What: Works by Leonard Bernstein and Wynton Marsalis
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Orchestra Hall, 1111 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.
Tickets: $47-$135, available at 612-371-5656 or minnesotaorchestra.org