Category Archives: Concerts

Jazz – Discipline and Spontaneity

“Most of us would say that inventing meaning while letting loose is the essence and promise of jazz.”
– Robert Christgau

From its origins in the African-American community of New Orleans in the late 19th century jazz has evolved into the premiere all-American art form, and has been labeled “America’s classical music.” By the 1920’s the genre had been embraced by the mainstream to such an extent that the Twenties and Thirties were declared “the Jazz Age” by author F. Scott Fitzgerald, and European composers including Stravinsky and Ravel incorporated jazz elements into their work.

Developing from roots in country blues, ragtime, field hollers, and spirituals, jazz music is notoriously difficult to define as it embraces many subgenres, among them Dixieland, swing, bebop, hard bop, cool jazz, free jazz, Afro-Cuban, modal jazz, jazz fusion, post-bop, and Latin jazz. However varied these styles, they do share some commonalities, chief among them an emphasis on live performance and on improvisation. Classical music performance is judged by fidelity to the written score and the composer’s intentions; by contrast jazz is more often characterized by interaction and collaboration in the moment. Less value is placed on the composer’s contribution and more on the individual musician’s interpretations of melodies, harmonies, and time signatures. Whereas classical music recordings strive to capture a definitive performance of a given work, jazz recordings document just one interpretation of a piece at a particular moment in time. Because of its improvisational nature no two jazz interpretations are alike, and there are no absolutes. It’s an art form that finds its purest expression in live performance, such as in the UC San Diego Jazz Camp’s Finale Concert.

UC San Diego Jazz Camp is an annual week-long intensive workshop for students aged 14 and older. Attendees are mentored by a distinguished faculty of music professionals and educators in a variety of jazz-related topics, including theory, composition, improvisation, critical listening, technology, performance practice, and ensemble performance. Students are grouped into ensembles under the tutelage of a faculty member, and rehearse standards and original compositions for the Camp’s Finale Concert before an audience of family, friends, and jazz aficionados. In the process student musicians are introduced to that combination of group interplay and individual expression, of discipline and spontaneity, that is unique to jazz.

Watch Finale Concert Highlights – UC San Diego Jazz Camp 2018

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Life-force

The title A Line Broken affirms the simple but profound truth that all things must eventually end, whether a piece of music, a concert, or a human life. One powerful expression of this reality is Courtney Bryan’s remarkable As Yet Unheard, a work for orchestra and chorus that commemorates Sandra Bland’s tragic death in police custody in 2013. Using the text of Sharan Strange’s poem, soprano Helga Davis speaks to us in Bland’s voice, prodding us to relive the circumstances of her death and to seek answers to painful questions too long unasked.

Bryan’s piece is perfectly complimented by Gabriel Faure’s luminous Requiem. The requiem has long been a popular form among composers, and celebrated practitioners of the genre include Mozart, Verdi, Brahms, Berlioz, and Britten. Unlike those of his fellow composers, Faure’s Requiem contains no Sturm und Drang, no thundering crescendos or rallying cries to the deceased. Rather, it’s a gentle, contemplative work, more of a meditation on transience than an exhortation. It contains most of the form’s familiar elements, including mixed chorus and soloists (in this instance baritone Jonathan Nussman and soprano Priti Gandhi), but they are employed in service of an effect that is uniquely Faure’s own. This piece has steadily gained in popularity and the final section, “In Paradisum,” is familiar to many from its use in several films, television programs, and commercials.

Asher Tobin Chodos’ adventurous arrangement of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman places a quartet of jazz soloists within a symphonic context. Just as innovator Coleman sought to reframe jazz conventions in an idiosyncratic style, so Chodos’ arrangement seeks to reposition this 1959 work in a modern idiom, one that embraces and even expands upon the challenges of a composition that, in Chodos’ words, “occupies a middle ground between specificity and discrepancy.” Most importantly, this new take on a classic preserve the beauty and immediacy of Coleman’s original.

Rounding out the program is Rand Steiger’s ingenious Template for Improvising Trumpeter & Orchestra. As noted by the title, this piece centers on the talents of virtuoso trumpeter Peter Evans in a performance that is largely (though not entirely) improvised in performance. Evans’ tones are manipulated at times by the composer through digital signal processing, in what amounts to another interdependent and improvised performance; indeed, the watchwords for the entire enterprise are exploration and collaboration.

In his program notes Conductor Steven Schick comments that “Music is the natural medium for life-force,” and in this concert’s seemingly disparate selections we hear that life-force in all of its manifestations.

Watch A Line Broken – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus.

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Jazz Rules the World

Contributed by John Menier

32822
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called the 1920s the “Jazz Age,” and recent inventions such as radio and phonograph records helped to spread the popularity of two quintessentially American musical genres, jazz and blues, across the country and beyond our borders. In 1926 a Paris-based music magazine began its review of recorded jazz with the observation that “Jazz truly rules the world,” and a growing number of influential European composers were jazz fans, including Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, and Poulenc. Maurice Ravel spent several happy nights with George Gershwin at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom listening to jazz, a testament to the music’s appeal.

For a time these foreign composers included jazz elements in some of their works, with varying degrees of success, but by the mid-1930s their ardor had cooled as new forms of modernism took hold on the Continent. It was left then to American musicians to continue nurturing the confluence of their native jazz and “serious” music that began in the early 1920s, and they did so brilliantly.

Three of the foremost practitioners of this hybrid form were George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Aaron Copland. Though they came from different backgrounds and training, and each developed a singular musical personality, they shared an interest in elevating the jazz/classical fusion from a novel experiment to a vibrant art form. They shared another quality, harder to quantify but nevertheless distinctive: their music was unmistakably American, with all that implies.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in the Gershwin masterpieces on this program, “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue.” In both pieces, the jazz/blues influences are on prominent display, as the music alternates in mood from contemplative to nostalgic to swaggering, and from Paris to Harlem. Gershwin insisted that both pieces are examples of sonata form, but whether sonata or tone poem or concerto or potpourri, it’s not important how it’s categorized. What matters is that this is fun music, as full of personality as anything you’re likely to hear.

It’s been said that Duke Ellington embodied the very soul of jazz. Ellington wrote some of the first extended jazz compositions to appear in the concert repertoire, and the two pieces on this program, “Mood Indigo” and “Solitude,” amply demonstrate his versatility and sophistication as a composer. Ellington was also an innovative, idiosyncratic orchestrator, and what became known as the “Ellington Sound” is a constant feature of his music – elusive, hard to define, harder still to imitate, but once heard, unmistakable.

Aaron Copland was a city boy who brought a certain polished urbanity to his work. After extensive studies in Paris Copland initially worked with then-voguish European styles, but gradually his native “Americanism” emerged and he established himself as the premiere American composer of his generation. “Quiet City” is a mood piece, a tone poem in miniature, originally written for a friend’s play. The play failed but the music lives on as a popular concert selection. The influence of jazz and/or blues is perhaps less overt in this haunting work than in the Gershwin and Ellington pieces, but it’s there in the tones and phrasings of the featured trumpet and oboe combined with the dotted rhythms of the string orchestra.

The program is rounded out with an exhilarating premiere work by Asher Tobin Chodos, “Concertino for Two Pianos and Orchestra.” Joining the composer on piano is Cecil Lytle, who also performs on “Mood Indigo,” “Solitude,” and “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Watch: Crossing the rue St. Paul – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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Simply Fun

Contributed by John Menier

32822In his remarks from the podium, La Jolla Symphony & Chorus Conductor Steven Schick notes that the 2017 edition of the “Young People’s Concert” features music by two composers with differing influences, temperaments, and styles: George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. While acknowledging the contrasts Schick also points out some surprising similarities shared by the two men: both were born to Russian-Jewish parents in Brooklyn, both studied in Paris, both had an interest in jazz and popular music, both experimented with different genres, and both came to prominence in the Jazz Age. First and foremost, Gershwin and Copland were American, with all that implies; as Gershwin put it, “True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”

Perhaps the best expression of what’s been called “the American touch” may be found in two of Gershwin’s most popular scores, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” Both pieces reflect Gershwin’s abiding interest in jazz and blues, two indisputably American art forms, and both touch glancingly upon some of the conflicts and contradictions of American life (then and now). Ultimately, though, the most profound and appealing quality shared by the compositions is that, in the words of the Conductor, “they are simply fun.”

By comparison to the high-stepping confidence of the Gershwin tunes, Copland’s “Quiet City,” originally written for a failed play, reflects another, more contemplative aspect of the American character. One reading holds that the longing and unfulfilled aspirations evoked by this piece warn of the consequences of not being true to one’s self, an ever-present danger in a fast-moving, ambitious society. Perhaps. However one interprets “Quiet City” (if it needs any interpretation at all) there’s no denying the work’s beauty, the result of a perfect balance between string orchestra and two soloists on trumpet and oboe.

Throughout his remarks, Steven Schick notes the empathy and intricate interplay between the various sections of the orchestra, by turns tempestuous and serene as required by the score, and the absolute need to serve the music and the composers.

Watch Young People’s Concert 2017 – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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UC San Diego Jazz Camp

8232Since its inception 15 years ago, UC San Diego Jazz Camp has stayed focused on a single goal: ensuring the continued vitality of jazz music by identifying, instructing, and nurturing new talent. The camp accepts students ranging in age from 14 to adult, and from a variety of educational or vocational backgrounds. Prior to attending the camp, students attend placement auditions based upon which they are assigned to one of two proficiency levels, intermediate and advanced. Most of the camp’s instruction is designed for one of these levels.

The camp’s faculty is made up of internationally renowned musicians who are experts in a variety of jazz stylings, from be-bop to contemporary open-form. The rigorous and immersive curriculum covers a broad range of topics and techniques, including Jazz Improvisation, Listening to Jazz, Master Classes, and individual lessons. There is a particular emphasis on jazz as a performance-oriented art form through participation in small ensembles and informal jam sessions, and attendance at faculty concerts.

The week’s activities culminate in a finale concert in which all students perform as a member of an ensemble under the supervision of a faculty member. Concert sets feature an assortment of instrumental combinations and an eclectic repertoire that includes standards as well as new compositions by faculty and students. Each student gains valuable performance experience and an opportunity to shine in front of a supportive and appreciative audience. In turn, audience members have the opportunity to witness some fine young musicians at the start of their career and older musicians embarking on a new chapter.

Watch UC San Diego Jazz Camp 2017 and explore the archive.

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