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All That Jazz

Symphony Silicon Valley grafted classical and jazz motifs in weekend concert

By Scott MacClelland

EXCEPT FOR gratuitous inflections, like those found in Milhaud's Creation of the World and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, jazz and classical music don't usually reconcile. Instead they tend to collide. Gunther Schuller tried to mix that oil and water in what he called Third Stream, now more or less a historic novelty. David Amram, currently 75, gave it a go famously in his Triple Concerto for Wind, Brass and Jazz Quintets in 1971 and has spent his career doggedly forcing the issue.

The concerto, heard Sunday in a Symphony Silicon Valley concert, in fact made a powerful argument for the efficacy of such a hybrid. Though fabulously overorchestrated—there were 90-plus players stuffed onto the California Theatre's stage—Amram's piece somehow manages to retain a clarity of effect that one expects from a Las Vegas illusionist.

He does this with a visionary take on the baroque concerto grosso. The "soloist" is the three groups of the title, the wind and brass quintets playing more or less like two antiphonal choirs, and both hanging back to make space for the jazz quintet. (To get an idea about how lavishly the work is orchestrated, the up-front piano part was virtually inaudible.)

Conductor Paul Polivnick danced through the boisterously swinging-time first movement. The strings played like a church chorus in the blues second, then provided an opening for Bill Trimble's alto sax and Aaron Lington's baritone sax to cut a rug. (At one point, Trimble ripped through some high-speed coloratura with shocking virtuosity.) For the final Rondo a la Turca, piccolo-player Mimi Carlson joined the front men to imitate the Pakistani flute that inspired Amram originally, in a long-limbed 10/4-meter phrase.

Trombonist and conductor Dennis Wilson led Duke Ellington's Black, Brown & Beige, a 1943 sortie from the nightclub onto the concert stage. Black is a brawny, thrusting "work song," Brown a soulful prayer sung powerfully by baritone Joseph Wright and punctuated by bells, and Beige restores the drive and force of the opening. This radically truncated version of Ellington's portrait of blacks in America was orchestrated by Maurice Peress, but instead of the alto sax that Peress calls for in the middle movement, Wilson picked up his trombone and, using mutes, served up some fancy field hollering. Where Gershwin's Rhapsody is popular song approaching jazz, the Ellington is ballroom jazz approaching classical, each with its own somewhat self-conscious success.

At last, Gershwin made an appearance, courtesy of his pictorial An American in Paris. Polivnick once again danced his way through the colorful, breezy piece, its taxi horns blaring from the percussion department. In this, the composer's own orchestration, the solo focus went to the principal trumpet, leaving the saxophone contingent mostly as a subchoir of the woodwinds.

Bill Trimble was given special recognition for his many decades as the first-call sax player in the South Bay. What a coincidence, therefore, that his imminent decampment from Santa Cruz to Washington State should come on the heels of the first concert in which he played in every piece on the program.

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From the November 2-8, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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