From the yawningly empty seats tonight at the Kennedy Center, it was clear that something was keeping them away. Pre-election fever? Check. A violin concerto, premiered last year, by a contemporary American jazz composer. Probably also, check, alas. It was their loss. Those who came were rewarded by a rousing performance, given by Nicola Benedetti, of Wynton Marsalis’ Concerto in D. It is no meanly conceived work, boasting four movements and lasting 40 minutes, and this was an opportunity to hear the concerto played by the very person for whom it was intended. Marsalis and Benedetti have teamed up as a creative force, both passionate promoters of social advocacy through music. And you could feel some of that here – there’s a desire for relevance, a desire not to stay within the standard idiom of classicism, a desire to mix things up. Salad bowl or melting pot, that was the old question about what mode of unity was more desirable for collective American identity. This Concerto is a bit of both, a bit of everything indeed, all elements are thrown into the stew, for good measure, but certain strands remain distinctly identifiable particularly those referencing jazz, spirituals and big band.

Nicola Benedetti © Simon Fowler
Nicola Benedetti
© Simon Fowler

Marsalis’ instrumentation helps here – in particular his over-the-top percussion section: we have African drums, a broom, claves, cow bells, a variety of cymbals ( including crash, ride, sizzle and splash), clappers, high hat, a marimba, even (stridently and pointedly) a police whistle. These present a cornucopia of interesting effects, the conventional mixed in with the unconventional. To read Marsalis’ own prolix descriptions of its movements is to realize that he intends it to be a litany of emotions, that his impulse is not merely to root the work in historic American community, but also to universalize its meaning. Although the pile-up of adjectives might have come across as a touch naïve (‘wistfulness, loss, cleansing grief, ascendance, transcendence, and acceptance’ to describe one, ‘raucous, stomping, mirthful, dancing, wistful, playful, parading’ for another), there is nothing like letting the music speak for itself, and it did so speak, very loudly at times. Benedetti came at it with great panache and full force; its demands are strenuous on the soloist, not least in making herself heard; the orchestra did their part with gusto. There were moving moments in the third movement, Blues, which developed into an African-American style church service, call-and-response, and ended with an extraordinary collective sigh. To be frank, this sounded more like the cry of a people and as such could not fail to have poignant effect; it was followed fittingly by a sensitively drawn-out decrescendo into silence.

The fourth movement Hootenanny was a brash celebration with some oversize barnstorming – the brass stood up at one point, visually as well as auditively dominant, and there was clapping and stomping all round. The finale was a deliberate – and disarming – eschewal of the grand. We watched fascinated as Benedetti, nonchalantly playing a whistling tune, moved through the orchestra desks to the exit. What was she doing? Would she leave the stage? She did, the conductor looking after her, shrugging. Soloist gone, work over. It was a neat conceit, not least for what it betokened. The concept of ‘cool’ in the 20th century was ‘invented’, if you will, by African-Americans of the jazz age, that appearance of grace under pressure, walking away whistling, pretending not to care. Marsalis has inherited that tradition, and who better than he to cock a snook at the ultimate convention that the soloist stays on stage till they are showered with applause? The end now, that was cool.

The program was framed by Tchaikovsky works. The first, the Polanaise from Eugene Onegin, played with energy and warmth; the last, his Symphony no. 3 in D major. Eschenbach – coming towards the end of his tenure here as Musical Director at the Kennedy – was conducting, and I must say, although his style is not modish or du jour, there is a kind of adamantine power about it which I have come to recognize and appreciate. He has a very special sort of intensity in his relationship with music; it’s of the essence to who he is, and he deploys his baton with enormous authority. The NSO were sounding free and forthright under him tonight, coming at the work with great expansiveness. 

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