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Review: Donato Cabrera and California Symphony celebrate the swing that jazz gave to 20th-century music – San Jose Mercury News

Review: Donato Cabrera and California Symphony celebrate the swing that jazz gave to 20th-century music – San Jose Mercury News


Review: Donato Cabrera and California Symphony celebrate the swing that jazz gave to 20th-century music

By Georgia Rowe

Audiences rarely see five saxophones onstage at a classical music concert, but there they were Sunday afternoon at the Lesher Center, as music director Donato Cabrera led the California Symphony in the original 1924 jazz band version of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," with the young, fast-rising pianist Charlie Albright as soloist.
The saxophones weren't window dressing. They played essential parts in Gershwin's great American score, and in the jazz-inspired pieces by Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill that comprised the rest of the program.
Conventional wisdom tells us that jazz and classical works occupy discrete musical spheres. But there was a great deal of overlap throughout the 20th century, as Cabrera demonstrated with great enthusiasm in Sunday's performances. Each work showed the ways that these composers — from France, Germany and the U.S. — admired, and were inspired by, the music of the Jazz Age.
Gershwin's "Rhapsody," presented in the concert's second half, was the main event, and Cabrera led a dynamic reading, one that re-created the spirit, if not the complete instrumentation (where were the frying pans?) employed in the work's premiere at New York's Aeolian Hall in 1924, with the composer at the piano. 
This performance brought the first local appearance of Albright, a recipient of the 2014 Avery Fisher grant, who dispatched his assignment with fervent emphasis and a mercurial touch. There were plenty of fireworks, too — the pianist's encores were Mozart's "Turkish March," capped by another American classic, "Great Balls of Fire."
Before that, there was Weill's "Little Threepenny Music," a 1929 suite drawn from "The Threepenny Opera" by the German composer and his frequent collaborator, Bertolt Brecht. Richly orchestrated — with instruments including guitar, banjo and bandoneon — and eminently theatrical, the score covers a wide stylistic range, from the insinuating "Moritat of Mack the Knife" to the lilting woodwinds of "Polly's Song." Cabrera drew crisp performances from the ensemble, with the dark-edged "Tango Ballad" sounding especially assured. 
The music before intermission was just as engaging, beginning with the jazz version of Stravinsky's "Scherzo a la Russe" — not the fully orchestrated one that the San Francisco Symphony premiered in 1945, but the composer's earlier version, commissioned by Paul Whiteman for his symphonic jazz band the previous year. The score is only about four minutes long — just the right length, Cabrera noted, to fill one side of a 12-inch 78 rpm record — but it's enormously characterful, and the conductor and his ensemble made the most of its jaunty rhythms.
Milhaud's "La creation du monde" (The Creation of the World) followed, in a performance that represented the orchestra's finest playing of the afternoon. Milhaud, who was born in France but spent much of his life in Oakland — he taught composition at Mills College — delivers music of exquisite tenderness in this sumptuous score, and Cabrera lavished considerable care and affection on it. Principal saxophonist David Henderson supplied a shapely solo.

The full saxophone complement returned for Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs," which brought the program's first half to a raucous conclusion. Cabrera tore into the composer's brassy Prelude, and held the swinging saxophone Fugue and Riffs for the full ensemble together with pinpoint timing and plenty of brio. Clarinetist Mark Brandenburg, featured in the part written for Woody Herman, sounded tremendous. So did those saxophones, and let's name them all here: in addition to Henderson, they were Aaron Lington, Ricardo Martinez, Kevin Stewart, and Dale Wolford.


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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