Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet concerto premieres in Cleveland

United StatesUnited States Eastman, Marsalis, Dvořák: Michael Sachs (trumpet), Cleveland Orchestra / Franz Welser-Möst (conductor). Mandel Concert Hall at Severance Music Center, Cleveland, 28.4.2023. (MSJ)

Michael Sachs plays Marsalis’s Concerto for Trumpet with the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni

Julius Eastman – Symphony No.2, ‘The Faithful Friend: The Lover Friend’s Love for the Beloved’
Wynton Marsalis – Concerto for Trumpet
Dvořák – Symphony No.9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’, Op.95

Wynton Marsalis has been a major figure in music for decades, ranking prominently as a classical and jazz trumpet player. Additionally, he has worked extensively as the music director and arranger of Jazz at Lincoln Center and, not least of all, as a composer. In his new concerto, co-commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, the Verbier Festival and the London Symphony Orchestra, he has crafted a large, ambitious piece, a veritable encyclopedia of the trumpet.

It begins with a startling gesture: the trumpeter – the Cleveland Orchestra’s legendary principal Michael Sachs – imitates the sound of nature’s most famous trumpeter, the elephant. The subsequent movement explores fanfares in march form, though the rhythm is often disjointed. The second movement ballad turns more lyrical, pairing the trumpet with the oboe, romantically singing. According to the composer, the third movement, ‘Mexican Son’, addresses the African-Hispanic diaspora, and includes a habanera in 5/4 time. The fourth is a blues movement that pitches the trumpet against the low brass in a call-and-response manner, before drifting into a trance-like closing, the most moving passage of the work.

This huge work (thirty-five minutes!) continues with a fifth movement inspired by the tradition of French trumpet playing, with which Marsalis is connected through his New Orleans roots. The sixth and final movement, the most eventful and mischievous of this eventful and mischievous work, employs dozens of percussion instruments and a whole jungle of instrumental sounds, and it brings the piece back to the elephant trumpet with which it began.

The concerto is dizzying and full of activity, a sort of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach (including the use of no fewer than seven different kinds of trumpet mutes). It references Marsalis’s musical roots and branches, including New Orleans jazz, bebop, Louis Armstrong, the twentieth-century trumpet concertos of Tomasi and Jolivet, numerous ethnic traditions and more. One hearing is hardly enough to grasp everything going on in such a large canvas, particularly when the general atmosphere is so volatile, with the soloist cast in the role of mythic trickster.

Soloist Michael Sachs presents composer Wynton Marsalis as music director Franz Welser-Möst applauds © Roger Mastroianni

Michael Sachs was fully equal to the role, playing with tremendous stamina (and few breaks) throughout the concerto. Sachs, now in his thirty-fifth season as principal trumpet, is such a masterful player that he could be compelling just playing scales for listeners. Here he was given a cornucopia of ideas to explore and animate, which he did with relish. According to the program notes, Sachs and Marsalis worked closely as the composer developed this piece, and it shows, with Marsalis pushing Sachs to such limits that it effectively stretches the trumpet concerto genre into a whole new world. Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst kept the teeming orchestral parts closely aligned to Sachs’s solo work, and the piece was received with cheers.

Preceding the Marsalis was Julius Eastman’s Symphony No.2, a mesmerizing exercise in slow chords and tone clusters moving from tenderness to agony to despair. Eastman (1940-1990) was a brilliant composer who is only now, posthumously, getting the recognition he deserves. In his lifetime, he was too much for the establishment: too eclectic, too Black, too queer. It can be seen now that he was just ahead of his time, pioneering post-serialism and post-minimalism long before others dared to cross genre borderlines. Let us hope that the current world of arts programming is not just embracing a fashion for greater inclusivity, and that it becomes a permanent sea change, for it is bringing us voices like Eastman, who need to be heard.

The score to this piece from 1983 was discovered in a box of papers at the home of one of Eastman’s former lovers and is titled ‘The Faithful Friend: The Lover Friend’s Love for the Beloved’. The phrase looping of the title is similar to the way Eastman uses consonant phrases in long, twisting arcs. The movement is trancelike, slowly unfolding layers of chords in the strings, tonal but searching. When the winds and brass first enter, it is with soft but dense clusters of notes that gradually darken the mood. There are also passages that intentionally go out of synchronization, offering an improvisatory freedom to the players.

Over its fifteen-minute length, the piece’s textures grow darker and denser, increasing the complexity. After an almost unbearable intensity is reached, the music slowly unclenches, closing with an awestruck tangling of bass and contrabass clarinets that finally stops without resolution. The work was a challenging one to open a concert, and the audience had some trouble settling down for such quiet intensity, but it announced the arrival of an important voice. Welser-Möst and the orchestra patiently unfolded the music, which was receiving its Cleveland premiere.

Then there was the rest of the concert, after intermission. Cleveland heard a great Dvořák Ninth this year, but it wasn’t this one. I am referring to the performance by Theodore Kuchar and the Lviv National Philharmonic of Ukraine in February when they stopped here on tour. The present performance, unfortunately, attempted to shoehorn Dvořák’s unruly invention into a neoclassical straitjacket.

Granted, the reason a repertory staple like the New World Symphony would be programmed is so that the rehearsals could concentrate on the two new works. But however familiar, the Dvořák is an equally difficult piece, and it deserves better than a top speed run with players struggling to keep up. Franz Welser-Möst has developed enormously over the years, but the sort of nuance and flexibility he has lately brought to Schubert’s ‘Great C major’ symphony was not in evidence here. Perhaps it is time for him to rethink his approach to the Dvořák Ninth.

He might find a whole new world.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

3 thoughts on “Wynton Marsalis’s trumpet concerto premieres in Cleveland”

  1. I thought the Eastman was the best performance of the three works. The Dvořák performance was not to my liking due to the conductor. The orchestra seemed to have kept up with him fine, but the ensemble often sounded like warm mush lacking articulation. We’ve seen this fast approach many times from this conductor creating some intensity on the surface, but ultimately lacking in warmth and soul. It worked okay in the Prokofiev Fifth Symphony, which has garnered some good reviews. However, I do think it holds up to the Szell and Maazel recordings for these reasons. After all these years, it’s regrettable that people still have to make excuses for this conductor.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. When FWM is doing his best work, I don’t feel any excuses are needed. His best performances are outstanding. But his default tendency to rush when he has no other insights to offer is exasperating. Oddly enough, one piece that could have benefitted from fleetness but which he did with icy reserve was Janáček’s Sinfonietta a few years back, the single worst thing I’ve heard him do. Overall, he’s not my preferred style, though I can appreciate him highly in the right repertory. I know that a lot of people don’t like his approach, and a lot like to criticize him, but I’ve heard him a great deal for many years, and I have heard a definite improvement. The three things I wish he’d do are to stop guest conducting so much, spend more time just thinking about what music means, and have the courage to characterize the music even when there’s no explicit program.

  2. Personally, I think it’s regrettable that an orchestra of the caliber of Cleveland engaged a conductor as music director who has to be characterized as having a ‘definite improvement’. That said, the performance of Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony (revised version) last week was very impressive and I hope it’s released as a recording.


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