Review: Saxophonist Branford Marsalis finds a finger-snapping groove with the Philadelphians

Publication: The Saratogian
Author: Judith White
Date: August 11, 2011

A nearly full moon smiled down on a large, enthusiastic Wednesday night audience for the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Up front was the amazing saxophonist Branford Marsalis, debuting his classical music talents here with the Philadelphians, and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, in a first-time SPAC performance.

I hope you were there: this was a truly original performance, new and different for this venue, and filled with energy and life.

Marsalis is cool: shaved head, black and slim and elegant. He plays his sax as effortlessly as he breathes, and his stage charisma matches that.

He is who he is, and makes no effort to dazzle, other than with his sound.

Orchestra timpanist Don Liuzzi introduced Marsalis as, “One of the greatest musicians our country has right now.”

The first work Marsalis played was “Escapades, for alto saxophone and orchestra,” which featured Principal Percussionist Chris Deviney playing vibraphone and Principal Bassist Harold Robinson .

Williams wrote this music for the Spielberg film “Catch Me If You Can.”

I loved the fact that this is one of the few orchestral pieces I’ve heard by Williams in which he doesn’t feature French horns.

In this work, he came close to writing a concerto for saxophone and vibraphone.

Deviney’s part often doubled Marsalis’ difficult runs and rhythms on sax.

Marsalis had sheet music on a stand in front of him, but played mostly with his eyes closed, his tone changing color as he moved along into the more jazz-like third movement, “Joy Ride.”

For its part, the orchestra marked the tricky rhythm in the opening with finger snaps.

Darius Milhard’s “Scaramouche” was a cakewalk for Marsalis, and the Latin rhythm of the final movement had people around me dancing in their seats.

Conducting all this and several other works was Marestro Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony. Broad-shouldered, with a mop of dark curls, he conducted with power and passion, and sometimes simply stood and listened.

Like another conductor last week, he shushed the musicians with a finger to his lips, but for the most part he coaxed and shivered and made gestures so big that one feared there would be nothing big enough left for the finale.

Marsalis thrilled the crowd with a jazzy encore of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” with Robinson backing him, walking the beat up and down his big bass fiddle.

Guerrero opened the concert with Debussy’s Prelude to the “Afternoon of a Faun, the various woodwinds setting the humid, dark atmosphere.

Along the way there was a fantastic camera shot of percussionists Anthony Orlando and Deviney, index fingers up, playing tiny finger cymbals, called crotales.

Guerrero literally jumped into arrangements from Suites from Bizet’s “Carmen,” a bundle of energy that he shared with musicians and audience alike. He found exactly the right rhythms, including a truly sexy Habanera.

Speaking of sexy, the orchestra closed the performance with Ravel’s “Bolero,” Deviney playing the snare part and the brass blaring the music home.

Submitted by Bobby on August 11th, 2011 — 05:32pm

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