It was "All That Jazz" and then some Saturday night at the Midland Center for the Arts, as the Midland Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to American popular music and its influence on classical composers. Maestro Carlton Woods put together a program of 20th century works that, in one way or another, came under the influence of "jass" (as it was originally called) or "jazz," in its broadest sense and definition.
The term "jazz," the form created by African-American musicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, came to be the umbrella term for many different styles of music - from swing to boogie-woogie, from highly improvised to strictly composed, from Scott Joplin to Duke Ellington. And while it is true that jazz, in its myriad forms, did have a huge impact on concert music in the 20th century (including those on this program), the omission of any music by an African-American composer seemed both glaring and perplexing.
The concert began with Kurt Weill's six-movement suite from his "Threepenny Opera," into which the composer filtered several elements of the popular, syncopated, American-born "jazz" that was all the rage in 1920's Germany. The work fares best when played by a smaller, more agile chamber orchestra, so perhaps the MSO's somewhat (and occasional) stiff reading can be ascribed to the full size of the ensemble. If much of the first and fourth movements was somewhat rocky and lacking in cohesion, the second movement's famous Mackie Messer theme was relaxed and pleasant.
Throughout, trumpeter Richard Tirk and trombonist Robert Lindahl were featured in important and well articulated solos, and concertmaster Wei Tsun Chang gave a sweet voiced solo in the fifth movement. Also in the fifth movement, clarinetist Linda Hargett, in a short passage, gave a memorably warm and moving solo.
If Weill's suite was influenced by jazz, Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto is an all-out homage to it. Written for the virtuoso swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, the work artfully joins evocative string choir writing with free-wheeling, jazz-infused mayhem.
The evening's soloist, Richard Stoltzman, has been hailed as the most accomplished clarinetist performing today, and everything he did Saturday night helped prove that assessment. At the first entrance of the clarinet in the opening movement, Stoltzman's warm tone and elegant articulation were quite possibly the most beautiful playing ever heard at the Center for the Arts. In the extended cadenza between the two movements, his poignant phrasings and effortless tension and release commanded absolute rapt attention from a mesmerized audience.
After intermission, Stoltzman returned to play arrangements of two Gershwin numbers, a spritely piece of the soundtrack from the film Let's Dance, and the ever-popular song "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" from Porgy and Bess. If the sharp angular rhythms of the Copland bothered the strings, these arrangements were to the ensemble's strengths, and they gave an insouciant and supportive reading. Stoltzman continued to weave in and out of registers and dynamics, producing elegant and musical sounds even at the highest registers where clarinets are wont to squawk.
The evening ended with a rare performance of Randall Thompson's second symphony, a work recently called "insipid" by one critic. Even Woods could only suggest to the audience he hoped it would "bring a smile" to them, hardly a ringing endorsement. In fact, it proved to be a playful, somewhat inventive, relatively bland work, which the orchestra was able to give an accomplished, disciplined reading.
The "jazzy" elements did not appear until the third movement, giving a modern cast to the symphonic scherzo, and so a program attempting to showcase the influence of "jazz" on modern concert music might have excerpted just that movement, and left room for other, more relevant works - say, by African-American composers.