Swooning, Blaring, Shaking, Jumping in Copland Clarinet Concerto

United StatesUnited States Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Copland, Marsalis: Mark Nuccio (clarinet) New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert (conductor), Avery Fisher Hall, New York City. 1.6.2013 (DS)

Stravinsky: Ragtime for 11 Instruments (1918)
Shostakovich: Tahiti Trot (“Tea for Two”), from The Golden Age, Op. 22 (1927/rev. 1929)
Copland: Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra, with Harp and Piano (1947-48)
Wynton Marsalis: Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3)

On an extremely humid 90-degree day, the New York Philharmonic paid proper tribute to the precipitate start to the summer with a seemingly light concert of jazz-influenced pieces. In actuality, the works’ swinging nature masked the ambitious performances hidden behind. Clarinetist Mark Nuccio’s solo in Copland’s Clarinet Concerto was a harrowing technical triumph; his fantastic swinging arpeggios and swiftly twisting runs swooned and blared and shook and jumped. Nuccio held strong for long intervals of high register passages while leading the audience along with his ease of phrasing (which, actually, was not so easy if you consider the lungs behind the song). This was the gem of the night, though Avery Fisher Hall’s less-than-ideal acoustics did not do Nuccio the justice he deserved.

Acoustics brought up another problem in Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, which bore a striking resemblance to Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand.” It seemed as if there were 1,001 players onstage as the full Philharmonic was joined by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, planted in the center, with Marsalis’s popular visage just barely peeking out a few rows back. How many saxophones were there anyway? I couldn’t tell. But I could certainly hear them, in one mass mixed together far too emphatically. With brass so far front and my seat so close, it was nearly impossible to hear the rest of the musicians. However, by sneaking to the back, I managed to glimpse the work in the way it was meant to be heard—well balanced and with plenty of space to spread out its wings. A piece lasting upwards of an hour, Alan Gilbert moved this behemoth as best he could and gave us some truly memorable moments, like the jazzy sound metaphor of a train disappearing into the distance at the end of the movement, “Manhattan to L.A.”

Ultimately, though, the jazz musicians made the classical musicians, well, look like just that—classical musicians in black and white uniform playing at attention. You can try to get a first violin section to shimmy and whimper or swing and hop, but somehow when a fleet of boogie-woogie-ing trumpets and sax are sitting two feet away, there’s no competing with those cool professionals bebopping and backbeating. It’s like trying to take your eyes off a shining diamond.

However, the two short opening works, Ragtime for 11 Instruments by Stravinsky and Tahiti Trot by (surprisingly) Shostakovich proved that in small chamber orchestra form, the musicians of the Philharmonic can hold their own in the land outside strict 4/4 tempos. These delightful appetizers loosened up the crowd and quickly made us forget the hot sweltering city summer hanging low on the Lincoln Center plaza, awaiting our return.

Daniele Sahr