SAN FRANCISCO — Music lovers in this City by the Bay were favored Wednesday night with a rare treat that deserves to become more commonplace around the rest of the country.
In collaboration with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus gave the third performance ever of Wynton Marsalis' most ambitious work yet, "All Rise," to a full house at Davies Symphony Hall.
"All Rise" was premiered in December 1999 in New York and recorded last fall, after a performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, right after Sept. 11. Marsalis and the LCJO performed in Seattle, the day after completing the recording. As everyone who heard them at Benaroya Hall knows, the music was good medicine for what ailed us at the time.
So was this performance of "All Rise," which coincided with the release of the Sony Classical recording.
The album is excellent, but it was altogether more exciting to hear this extraordinary piece played live, in a beautiful hall by a world-class orchestra.
Conducted by Steven Sloane, the San Francisco Symphony played with accuracy and élan, seeming to grasp the structure and spirit of the piece. If they were a bit stiff, it was understandable, since it was their first crack at a very difficult score.
But it was the 200-member chorus, perched in a wide panorama above the orchestra, that really rocked.
"All Rise" is a wildly diverse yet remarkably coherent, hour-and-a-half work that draws upon spiky, Stravinksy-like harmonies and rhythms, old-time spirituals and hymns, blues, New Orleans jazz, swing, bebop, tango, samba-school street percussion, American musical theater, tap dance, Ravel, train songs and fiddle tunes (with Thelonious Monkian wit).
Like a blues verse, which has three lines, the piece is structured in three movements, each with four parts. The first movement is joyous; the second, pure trouble; the third, earned wisdom.
"All Rise" deftly blends jazz rhythm section and symphony orchestra in ways that never sound corny. In the sexy "Go Slow (But Don't Stop)" part, a piano trio — Herlin Riley (drums), Carlos Henriquez (bass) and Richard Johnson (piano) — suddenly emerged and, within seconds, was really swinging, paving the way for Victor Goines' come-hither clarinet and the silk lingerie of Ted Nash's alto sax.
On "Cried, Shouted, Then Sung," the chorus nailed Marsalis' angry accusations of society's false consciousness. Soon after, in "Look Beyond," Joe Temperley's angelic baritone sax moved the mood back to jazz, and Riley played a daring interlude on washboard.
Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and principal cellist Michael Grebanier got a sweet turn in the spotlight on "El 'Gran' Baile de la Reina," Marsalis' first venture into tango.
Sloane was a vigorous, physical conductor, but it was even more fun to watch Marsalis, as he sat in the trumpet section, furrowing his brow with approval or anxiety as different parts flared up.
"All Rise" ends with a swinging coda of polyphonic New Orleans jazz, to release the tension of its stirring choral climax. But the crowd clearly wanted more, and Marsalis obliged by coming forward with a chattering, virtuoso solo on George Gershwin's "Embraceable You."
"All Rise" is a unique and important piece. Taking his cue from the original jazz composer (and fellow New Orleanian) Jelly Roll Morton, Marsalis has had the courage to imagine what an American national music sounds like when it is culturally inclusive. Further, he imagines our history as if it had always been that way, as if there had never been a "highbrow" or "lowbrow," a "jazz" or "classical," or, for that matter, a "black" or "white."
It is a piece — and a message — that should be heard more often. Perhaps one day we shall even hear it in Benaroya Hall.
Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org.