Friday, January 16, 2015

Jazzing it up with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

Attending Charlotte Symphony Orchestras has become a staple in my cultural life.  It’s no secret, though, that I have a steep learning curve when it comes to classical music.  And so I was eagerly awaiting the CSO concert featuring jazz great Marvin Stamm on trumpet and repertoire such as Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” and Duke Ellington's "Ellington Fantasy."  It was pure joy.

The fun got started with Maestro Ponti's pre-concert talk.  I knew we were in for a good time when Raffaele quoted Louis Armstrong.  "There are two types of music," Mr. Armstrong said. "The good and the bad."  Raffaele assured us that the evening's concert would feature the good kind.

Mssrs. Mancini, Neuschwander, Stamm, Ponti, Danielsson & guest

The Maestro talked about the way people experience music (and, in fact, life).  "There are magical moments," he said, "When you hear or play something and think, 'Oh, baby, that's it.' And then you spend the rest of your life trying to make it happen again."  And then, with the help of guest musicians Per Danielsson on piano, Mark Neuschwander on bass and Dave Mancini on drums, he gave us a musical demonstration of this phenomenon.

Mr. Danielsson played a melody that Raffaele promised the audience knew.  Nobody, however, was able to name that tune.  Mr. Danielsson changed up the tempo, and suddenly we realized that we were listening to "Take the A Train," the signature song of the Duke Ellington orchestra.

From there it got crazy.  The trio played "A Train" in a variety of styles, from bossa nova to calypso to slow and sultry to rock and roll.  The rhythm was changed from 4/4 to 3/4.  The pianist played in half time while the drums and bass played in double time.  It was impossible to sit still, and the women on both sides of me were reading my mind when they said, "We need a dance floor!"

The concert hadn't even started, and I could have gone home happy.  The evening was off to a great start.

The orchestra's seating had been reorganized for this concert, with strings on one side and brass on the other. The piano for Mr. Daniellson was dead center, with Mr. Mancini's drums to one side and Mr. Nuenschwander's bass just in front.  A chair and stand had been set apart for jazz great Marvin Stamm and his trumpet. It was one more indication that the evening held something different for the audience.

The concert proper kicked off with the wonderful "Symphonic Dances from West Side Story" by Leonard Bernstein.   It's hard to believe, but neither I nor Janice (my companion for the evening) have ever seen "West Side Story."  I've heard excerpts from its "Symphonic Dances" many times, though, with the most memorable being when I saw "Jerome Robbins' Broadway."   (Fun--but totally off point--fact:  Did you know that the first draft of the play was called "East Side Story" since it was set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan?)

It was wonderful to hear the work from start to finish, and the musicians looked like they were having as much fun as the audience was.  The prologue included an excerpt from "Jet Song," and Raffaele turned sideways to the crowd with a mischievous look as he snapped his fingers. The orchestra members cried out "Mambo" on cue in the segment with the same name.  (No matter how many times I have seen this, it always makes me smile.)  A percussion player blew an incredibly loud whistle.  Serious fun.

My predictably favorite excerpt was "Somewhere" with its hopes of a place where the couple's young love can bloom without concern about their differences. I could hear the lyrics of "Hold my hand and we're halfway there, Hold my hand and I'll take you there."  And so the CSO had.

Marvin Stamm
From there we were off to the world of Duke Ellington's Fantasy.  Our guest musicians joined the CSO for this piece, and I felt as if the Charlotte Performing Arts Center had been transformed into a jazz club.  Once again, the piece was a medley.  There was "Caravan" (one of my personal favorites) and "Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing").  Dave Mancini had a ridiculous drum solo that prompted the first of several exclamations of "Oh, wow" that I heard during the performance.  I was dancing in my seat throughout (something the people behind me commented on during intermission -- sorry!)

Once again, I would have been fully satisfied if the evening had ended there, but Raffaele had more in store.  I laughed when he took the podium after intermission.  Always fastidious about his appearance, his hair was wild and I was reminded of a mad scientist or--more apt--a crazy jazz musician.

Mr. Stamm, his fellow guest artists and the CSO went on to treat the audience to an array of jazz numbers, including an upbeat composition entitled "Samba du Nancy" that Mr. Stamm wrote for his wife. Raffaele and Mr. Stamm chatted a bit, and when asked who most influenced Mr. Stamm, he had a surprising answer.  While he of course was influenced by the great musicians with whom he's worked (like Stan Kenton and Thad Jones), he credited his middle school and high school band conductors and his trumpet teacher with inspiring him to make a career of music. It was a tribute to the power of arts education, a dwindling commodity in today's world.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of music that once again showed the ever-growing versatility and talent of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Ponti's baton. I can't wait to see what's in store for us next.

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