Sax appeal: Marsalis, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra team up at Kravis Center

By David Fleshler

Saxophonist-composer Branford Marsalis performed with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra Sunday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

Although the saxophone is best known as an American jazz mainstay, the instrument originally came from France, where it was invented in the 1840s by Adolphe Sax (whose other achievements included the saxatromba, saxhorn and saxtuba).

Designed to combine a wind instrument’s speed with a brass instrument’s power, Sax’s invention was taken up by military bands and a few classical composers. But only after crossing the ocean and making it into American popular music did the instrument achieve its breakthrough.

The concert Sunday by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach expressed the instrument’s rich classical and jazz heritage. The eminent saxophonist Branford Marsalis served as one of the most overworked soloists ever to appear on a South Florida stage, playing in not one but in three different pieces.

The concert featured Carmen, Jazz Suite on Themes by Bizet, a new work commissioned by the orchestra. The work was written by Courtney Bryan, a New Orleans composer who holds a doctorate from Columbia University and teaches music at Tulane University. In a program note, the composer says the saxophone plays Carmen in music that “features her freedom, love and fearlessness, celebrating an imagined world in which Carmen lives and wins.”

The work begins with some of the opera’s most famous tunes, the Habanera, Seguidilla and Toreador Song, with modernist harmonies, unusual percussion and occasions where the familiar tunes veer off to unfamiliar places. The piece grows stronger as it continues. The most effective section played off the scene in which Carmen reads her dark fate in the cards. With tension-filled harmonies much more advanced than anything from Georges Bizet’s time, the music swells and Marsalis’s saxophone figurations become more and more intense, expressing the force, resignation and defiance at the heart of Carmen’s character.

For Debussy’s Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra, Marsalis sat in the orchestra’s wind section, an appropriate decision for a work in which the saxophone served more as a prominent part of the ensemble than a solo instrument. While this short work isn’t the most compelling Debussy, Marsalis’s mellow tone fit in well with the composer’s misty, dreamy musical landscape.

In contrast to the Debussy, the French composer Jacques Ibert’s Concertina de Camera was an unabashed showpiece, and Marsalis gave an outstanding performance. In the Allegro, he played with an assertive tone in bright tunes and machine-gun runs, giving a sense that he could finally open up after holding back in the previous works.

The high point, and possibly the best part of a concert that felt pretty lightweight, came in the Larghetto, where Marsalis brought a dreamy, shimmering tone to nocturnal music that was full of yearning and nostalgia—moods that have long been the saxophone’s territory—over a bed of plangent harmonies in the orchestra. The brief finale led to a cadenza in which Marsalis’s playing seemingly as fast as humanly possible with a brilliant tone for an effect that was nothing short of dazzling.

Although the orchestra brought a star saxophone soloist, it did not bring a conductor. Since Orpheus’s founding in the early 1970s, when the anti-establishment ethos of the era reached the most establishment genre of music, the orchestra has gone without the services of a baton-wielding boss. That didn’t seem to interfere with the group’s almost preternatural ensemble precision and interpretive unity.

It may be impossible to make one of the most famous overtures sound fresh. But the orchestra’s performance of Rossini’s Overture to The Barber of Seville came close.  The performance featured witty wind playing, incisive and intense strings in the mock-sinister figure that sounds like the clipping of scissors, and a rousing concluding crescendo.

The orchestra’s string shone in Joaquin Turina’s La Oracion de Torero (The Toreador’s Prayer). After a turbulent opening, they played in long phrases that sounded like the sentences of a prayer, with passages of glowing warmth and lively Spanish-inflected melody.

As an encore, Marsalis and the orchestra gave a dusky, sensual account of “The Girl from Ipanema” by Antônio Carlos Jobim.

Posted in Performances

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Mon Feb 7, 2022
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