Symphony Review: Slatkin and Hall-Tompkins jazz up January
By Benjamin Torbert
Extending his 56-year association with the Saint Louis Symphony, Orchestra, Maestro Leonard Slatkin returns annually to his adoring Gateway City public, this season for a triptych of concerts arrayed about Martin Luther King Day, focused on jazz and jazz elements in classical music. Slatkin’s nose for American music rates as keen as his sensitivity for fusion programming, and Friday’s (12 January 2024) concert at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center featured four American toe-tappers, not least a world premiere by Jeff Beal, “Body in Motion,” rendered thrillingly by the orchestra and violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins. With selections from Antheil, Ellington, and Gershwin, these works offered contrasting visions of jazz in the American concert hall. As usually occurs in successful outings concerned with genre-bending, they (re)exposed the tyranny of adherence to genre, of the artificiality of segregating “different kinds” of music.
[Find out more about the music with the KDHX symphony preview.]
Slatkin commenced with a brief introduction to George Antheil’s (1900-59) “A Jazz Symphony,” peppering us with bon mots, characterizing Antheil as a “bad boy of music,” and offering a pithy summation of the piece: “Is there any outright jazz in it? No.” Nonetheless, Antheil attempted similar feats as his better-known contemporary, and rival—Matthew Mugmon recalls Antheil’s boast that “A Jazz Symphony” would “put Gershwin in the shade.” Gershwin remains unshaded, and the resulting work qualifies as more of a collision of jazz and classical than a dance together, but it introduced the other three works effectively, demonstrating how naturally marrying these genres came to the latter three composers. (I’m reminded of my late string teacher, Peggy Neuen, and her frequent contention: “Bach invented swing.”) We heard a 1955 revision of the piece, premiered in 1927 with WC Handy’s orchestra of Black musicians, and the composer at piano.
Immediately featuring pianist Peter Henderson, “A Jazz Symphony” clattered out of the gate in a syncopated strut. Orchestral voices crosscut each other like New York pedestrians rushing to myriad destinations. Jazzishly-positioned commonplaces abounded in a cross-talky big band conversation, squawky muted trumpets, insistent basses. Henderson flourished in a jaunty solo midway through, as though running down stairs, too fast yet just barely under control. Animated mice from the Warners’ studio suggested themselves in the winds and percussion, the last in lashing, staccato outbursts. In eight peripatetic minutes, “A Jazz Symphony” faded to black with a brief, suddenly gooey string serenade recalling a title card reading THE END at a movie’s close. Outright jazz? No. But a bracing opener.
World premieres excite, bidding the listener to wonder if the piece has legs. I predict Jeff Beal’s “Body in Motion” will travel. Well-known for his music for “Monk,” “Rome” and the American remake of the BBC’s “House of Cards,” five-time Emmy-winner Beal’s (1963-) artist bio aptly bills him as “genre-defying;”—frankly, we need our genres defied more often. Like Terence Blanchard, another leading light of film scoring and current darling of the [operatic] classical music establishment, Beal plays jazz trumpet—in increasingly abstract modes, Slatkin said. In introducing the work, Maestro returned to that hoariest of chestnuts in Classical Musicland, the contest between so-called absolute music, and music associated with programmatic ideas. No coincidence that many successful composers in the contemporary classical space excel in film scores too; audiences lap up their music because we’ve spent a century watching moving images on screens, and whether we know it or not, we grasp motivic associations with images, intuitively. (Play exactly two notes of “Jaws” for undergraduates born long after 1975 and watch them never ever fail to produce the word ‘shark,’ no matter whether they can name John Williams or Stephen Spielberg, or have seen the movie, or have ever heard the word ‘letimotif’ before the instructor speaks it). Slatkin invited us, “you create the imagery that may or may not go with it.” I can’t speak for all of the audience, but I was already gonna. That’s just how most of us live, post-Wagner.
In form, “Body in Motion” presents as a Classical/Romantic concerto, for violin. Too, Beal offered the barest outline of a program, in three movements titled rather than named by tempi: “head above water,” “breathing,” and “running,” all styled lowercase. He dedicated the new work to Slatkin and to violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins, who emerged stage right, regally, in white-gold open-toed stilettos and a swooshy metallic-brown gown that seemed to anticipate and counterbalance her “body in motion.” Nothing, not even Beal’s note in the printed program about images of water, could have prepared me for the first bars: soft fluttering flutes strongly rhyming with Bedrich Smetana’s “Vltava / The Moldau” (1875). The viola section underpinned Hall-Tompkins’ entrance, in a reverie mode. Repeatedly, especially in the first two movements, everyone involved created a sense of slight, foregrounded dislocation for the soloist. That is, the orchestra seemed ambient, about her but not with her, like the way the human subject in a Kehinde Wiley painting appears almost green-screened before the surrounding vegetation. This effect wasn’t acoustic—the sound arrived beautifully mixed as you’d expect in AB Hall—but one of orchestration.
Beal’s program note offered a swimmer in a turbulent sea, but by and large, Hall-Tompkins proceeded unshook, mostly in a legato line, never truly in danger of losing her “head above water,” though navigating orchestral tumult. A few minutes in, with a sudden pizzicato utterance, she began a cadenza, with some double stops and immaculate intonation. “breathing” followed; here she moved without confinement by the environmental conditions, in Romantic solitary mode, the orchestra shifting to light accompaniment. She spent a while down on the G and D strings, the “breath” rising later, with generous portamento, catnip for audience members who respond to anything sounding capital-R Romantic. The orchestral background slowed to revolve around her, her solo part proceeding in vaguely Poulenc-esque searching, in an idiom neither safely tonal nor challengingly dissonant. Hall-Tompkins played with superb economy of motion. Some soloists act upon the instrument; she seemed like her left arm happens to organically include a violin.
“Body in Motion” closed with “running,” a staccato chase motive growling from the violas and low strings, Hall-Tompkins’ line projecting the kind of energy you get from Philip Glass’ first violin concerto, last movement. The treble sections joined the chase; though they’d never catch her, neither did she strain. Intermittently but fluidly, she’d slow down, or do less, like a distance runner to whom load management comes easily, perpetually staying four or five steps ahead. Only towards the finale did she gesticulate strongly, kicking up her back heel in a barrage of (I think) sixty-fourth notes. Audiences will often adjust ourselves gingerly into standing ovation; Hall-Tompkins drew instantaneously upright bodies in motion. To this lengthy applause she brought Beal for a hug, and his bows. The piece and the performance were fantastic; no soloist encore, none necessary.
My goodness, how to follow that? With, perhaps, the most celebrated and prolific composer of mid-century, Duke Ellington (1899-1974). We reconvened after intermission for his final composition, “Three Black Kings,” written in hospital (!) in 1974. Ellington’s son Mercer posited it as a eulogy for Dr King (apt this weekend), finished it, and gave it to the Alvin Ailey Dance Company in 1976. Slatkin got the first section “King of the Magi” (Balthazar) off to a rousing start with the percussion, marimba, bongos, Ellington mixing staccato and legato figures, cycling, but in a forward line, the choo-choo returning on the other side of a huge, gushy, stringy melody. Henderson returned at the piano, situated between very active percussionists and the second violins. The trombones authoritatively punctuated the outro, before a mysterious segue, with Megan Stout’s harp, to the second movement, “King Solomon.” Concertmaster David Halen got a cute solo interlude preceding a gorgeous one for Abby Raymond on clarinet. The emerging bossa nova unfolded with sashaying winds, later giving way to a contemplative passage with quiet strings.
The last movement, “Martin Luther King: A Joyful Gospel Number,” is a wonder. It appears to offer no programmatic, bio-sourced trajectory involving Dr King, but fashions its gospel rhythm into a slow dance, soprano sax soaring over sassy dotted strings. I received an image of a very classy, oh, 58-year old couple dancing on their 35th wedding anniversary, at first surrounded by other pairs. The filmic feel and six-minute gradual crescendo, the passing of the melody to other voices, first violins among them, suggested a gradual zoom out, the returning sax becoming a little more virtuosic, as other couples leave the dance floor, to watch the central figures. By the end, the entire orchestra embraces the whole scene, in a spiraling crane shot, as the dance floor is revealed to be somewhere spectacular like the shore of Lake Tahoe. Martin’s not marching in Selma or Memphis; he’s enjoying a paradoxically public-private moment with Coretta Scott King. The music lands triumphantly but reminds you of the dances they would never enjoy between his death in 1968 and hers in 2006. “Three Black Kings” rates as a masterpiece that should be offered in the concert hall as regularly as your favorite odd-numbered Beethoven symphony.
Second-guessing Slatkin, I’d have ended the concert there, or switched the order of Ellington and Gershwin (1898-1937), or paired Gershwin instead with Antheil. “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture” (1943) was fun. Only the apparently unbreakable symphonic convention of placing Beal’s concerto second, prior to intermission, would have precluded pairing Porgy instead with Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony.” “Porgy and Bess,” too, qualifies as masterful, but also problematized; I hear many Black opera singers regard this most performed of American operas with equal parts admiration and fatigue, discouraged by its sometime adjacency to minstrelsy, by its orated eye dialect, and by its grounding in The Struggle, on display for white audience. Its several instrumental adaptations allow you to forget all that, but maybe you shouldn’t, least on MLK weekend. Slatkin programmed the Robert Russell Bennett adaptation, a parade of the usual hits, including “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The chief attraction of this arrangement, to my ear, is its liberal use of banjo, one of the best instruments in the world and the subject of education lately offered the public by Rhiannon Giddens. After the overture, with its sense of both porters and passengers flooding out of a train that hasn’t quite stopped, and the subsequent jarring peace of “Summertime,” Stephen Schenkel did the honors with banjo in the “I Got Penty o’ Nuttin” sequence; Slatkin actually kinda danced on the podium for a bit. This arrangement proceeds in cross dissolves rather than jump cuts. It lacks the heroic tragedy of the opera’s finale—it’s lighter. I caught first-desk second violinist Eva Kozma laughing towards the end. The audience received it as enthusiastically as they did Beal’s and Ellington’s works. One thing will never change about audiences: they love recognizing stuff. And maybe that’s why you close with Porgy.
Leonard Slatkin reaches a milestone birthday this year and approaches six decades with our hometown band. We’re grateful for his longevity, his scholarship, his musicianship and his circling back to us regularly. Four more years! (At least).
Next from the SLSO: Leonard Slatkin conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, and narrator Kevin McBeth in music by Brahms, Copland, and Tchaikovsky on Saturday, January 20, at 7:30 pm. On Sunday, January 21, at 3 pm Slatkin conducts the orchestra and piano soloist Jeffrey Siegel in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” along with music by Paul Turok, Mary Lou Williams, and John Alden Carpenter. Both concerts take place at the Touhill Center on the University of Missouri—St. Louis campus. The Sunday concert will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio on Saturday, January 27, at 7:30 pm.