Symphony Review: Mary Lou Willims's "Zodiac Suite" stars in a jazzy afternoon with the SLSO
By Chuck Lavazzi
Sunday afternoon (January 21) Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin led the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) in a mostly glorious conclusion to their three-concert series of works celebrating the intersection of classical and what Slatkin calls “vernacular” music—a term he uses for jazz, folk, spirituals, theatre, and popular music in general. Sunday, though, the emphasis was firmly on jazz and its progenitor, ragtime.
[Find out more about the music with my symphony preview.]
The afternoon opened with a literal bang in the form of the cymbal crash that begins “A Joplin Overture” by American composer and critic Paul Turok (1929–2012). Written in 1973 and first played by Slatkin and the SLSO the following year, it’s mostly a series of expansions on themes from “The Entertainer, A Rag Time Two Step" by Scott Joplin (1868–1917) that lead to a brief coda in which a series of Joplin tunes get together for a rousing finale. Turok’s colorful orchestration and somewhat whimsical approach to Joplin’s themes combine to create a work that is, appropriately, entertaining.
Like all but the final work on the program (the ever-popular “Rhapsody in Blue”) this was a piece that was essentially brand new to the orchestra, none of whom were around in 1974. Nevertheless, they played with skill and panache under Slatkin’s knowing direction.
|The Aaron Diehl Trio takes a curtain call
L-R: Aaron Diehl, David Wang, Aaron Kimmel
Next was the chamber orchestra version of the 1945 “Zodiac Suite” by pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981). The twelve movements depict both mystical aspects of the constellations and the personalities of the composer’s friends based on their birth signs.
Originally composed for jazz trio (and recorded in that version by Williams), the suite was arranged for jazz trio and chamber orchestra by Williams with input from composer/arranger Milt Orent (1918–1975), and had its premiere in the format on New Year’s Eve 1945. The performance was poorly rehearsed and got lukewarm reviews, and the work fell into neglect.
Which, based on what we heard Sunday, is a serious injustice. The “Zodiac Suite” is a stunning integration of ideas from both the classical and jazz worlds. The suite is a virtual history of early 20th century music, from boogie-woogie and swing to French Impressionism and even Hollywood film scores. It’s as though Williams took every sound that was in the air for the first half of the century and turned them into her personal musical kaleidoscope.
To pick just a few examples, “Cancer” develops a smoky slow blues over a rolling piano bass line that could have come from Rachmaninoff. “Leo” kicks off with a brassy Hollywood fanfare that gives way to a melting violin solo (neatly done by Concertmaster David Halen) with a lush orchestral backdrop. “Scorpio” uses “exotic” percussion sounds (mallets on the snare drum) and syncopation in a way that seems to anticipate Les Baxter’s 1951 “Quiet Village.” “Capricorn” showcases the winds with Debussy-esque harmonies. And it all wraps up with an elegant jazz waltz in “Pisces.”
With its rich harmonic inventiveness and fine performances by Slatkin, the SLSO musicians, and the Aaron Diehl trio (Diehl on piano with David Wang on bass and Aaron Kimmel on drums), the “Zodiac Suite” was, at least for me, the absolute highlight of a concert in which there was no shortage of wonderful moments. It was warmly received, resulting in a dynamic encore from the Diehl trio, featuring impressive solos by Wang and Kimmel.
There were also plenty of opportunities for members of the orchestra to shine in the work that opened the second half of the concert, the delightfully frivolous score of “Krazy Kat, a Jazz Pantomime” written in 1921 by John Alden Carpenter (1876–1951). Based on the wildly imaginative comic strip of the same name, the 1922 New York premiere of “Krazy Kat” had sets and costumes by the strip’s creator George Herrimann and a scenario based on the strip’s absurd love triangle of the eponymous gender-fluid cat, the brick-tossing mouse Ignatz, and the stolid Offisa Pup, a police dog dedicated to protecting Krazy from Ignatz.
|"Krazy Kat" ballet, 1922
There’s not that much jazz in the piece, but there is plenty of cheerful Loony Tunes anarchy. The music changes moods, meters, and styles in rapid series of sonic “jump cuts” that might be a challenge for a lesser orchestra or conductor, but seemed more like a playground for Slatkin and company. The many brief solo bits came off perfectly, with fine stuff from (among others) harpist Megan Stout, piccolo player Ann Choomack, Principal Flute Matthew Rothstein, Nathan Nabb on soprano sax, pianist Peter Henderson, Associate Principal Bassoon Andy Gott, and Associate Principal Trombone Amanda Stewart. Slatkin kept it all running smoothly and didn’t miss a moment of the score’s humor.
The afternoon concluded Gershwin’s massively popular “Rhapsody in Blue” in the 1942 full orchestra version by Ferde Grofé. As Slatkin noted in his introduction, 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the work’s premiere and the 50th anniversary of the recording by Slatkin and the SLSO as part of their Vox Box of Gershwin’s complete works for orchestra and piano and orchestra. It was not only the first time all of that music had been recorded, but it was also the first of a long series of recordings Slatkin did with the orchestra—recordings that very much helped to raise the SLSO’s profile.
That made it something of a sentimental event for both Slatkin and the audience, so Jeffrey Siegel, who recorded it with the orchestra back in 1974, no doubt seemed a logical choice for the part this time. Sadly, based on what we heard Sunday, this turned out not to be an ideal decision. The piano part of the “Rhapsody” is a testimony to Gershwin’s skill as a keyboard virtuoso and while Siegel was more than up to that challenge fifty years ago (as you can clearly hear in his recording), that no longer appears to be the case.
Slatkin and the orchestra were in top form at least. Principal Clarinet Scott Andrews nailed that famous opening glissando, giving it a real ‘20s jazz feel. Ditto Principal Trumpet Steven Franklin. The saxophone trio Nathan Nabb, Zach Stern, and Joel Vanderheyden (two altos and a tenor, respectively) came through loud and , but at least from our seats all the way on house right, Steven Schenkel’s banjo was swamped. That’s one of the reasons I prefer the jazz band version, but to each their own. The sound was lush and clear in any event, and Slatkin did an excellent job of maintaining the delicate balance between orchestra and soloist.
In his comments earlier in the evening, Slatkin pointed out that this two-week series was mostly about the way jazz made its way into the concert hall in the years running up to “Rhapsody in Blue,” making that work the culmination of the process rather than the beginning of it, as is popularly assumed. The variety of his musical selections and the quality of the performances have made that point admirably, in my view.
This series was also a reminder of what so many of us loved about the “Slatkin Years”: the combination of eclectic and imaginative programming with the deep connection between him and the orchestra. Despite the fact that the 2024 SLSO is a completely different group from the 1974 SLSO, that bond is still there. And Leonard Slatkin remains a St. Louis treasure.
If you missed this concert, never fear: it was recorded and will be broadcast this Saturday, January 27, at 7:30 pm on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3 and will be available for streaming for a limited time at the SLSO web site.
Next from the SLSO: Music Director Stéphane Denève returns to conduct the SLSO and actor Ken Page in Poulenc’s ballet “Les animaux modèles” (“The Model Animals”), Roussel’s ballet “Le Festin de l’araignée” (“The Spider’s Feast”), and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” In an interesting change-up, Prokofiev’s work will be performed without the usual narration but with Suzie Templeton’s animated 2006 film, while the Poulenc will be performed with Page reading contemporary translations of the La Fontaine fables that inspired the composer. Performances will be Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm (January 27 and 28) at the Stifel Theater downtown.