Branford Marsalis ventures into classical music territory

by: Robert Folsom
November, 2008

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis put aside the jazz he’s popular for and ventured into classical music territory with the Philarmonia Brasileira Sunday afternoon at Johnson County Community College’s Yardley Hall.

Philarmonia Brasileira, conducted by Gil Jardim, devotes itself to the preservation of Brazilian music, notably that of composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. The program featured works by Villa-Lobos and the Brazilian-tinged compositions of Frenchman Darius Milhaud.

Marsalis brought out his soprano sax for Villa-Lobos’ Fantasia for Saxophone and Orchestra. Its three movements of Animé, Lent and Très Animé set the mood with irregular time signatures played con brio yet with a natural flow. A balance also was established between Marsalis’ sweet, but not too sweet, tone and the ensemble’s dynamics.

That balance served Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" well, especially the Aria (Cantilena), the first of two movements. This was a strings-only configuration for the orchestra, and it showed the composer’s fascination with melding Bach in a Brazilian style: The Danza (Martelo) showcased a descending staccato line that not only brought Bach to the fore but Marsalis’ phrasing as well.

The Bach influence was furthered by a cello and violin ostinato that was picked up by Marsalis. Yet the work had its distractions, such as sounding at times like music for a street scene from the golden age of movies.

Jazz tonalities weren’t put completely aside, not with Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde,” Op. 81, on the bill.

Marsalis sat in with the Philarmonia Brasileira on alto for this one with the clarinets getting the most lines. Those lines were so like Gershwin. The six movements played as one also recalled Stravinsky-like jazz moments.

Perhaps that comes from Milhaud’s theme of the creation of the world.

Another distraction: A section featuring only two violins sounded small, and this was from Row F. They must have sounded smaller toward the back of the hall.

Milhaud’s “Scaramouche” for Saxophone and Piano, Op. 165c, began with Marsalis on alto standing stage-right by the piano for the first movement, Vif. The saxophone’s mercurial opening passages are difficult, yet Marsalis showed a studied form. Scaramouche is a comical character in Italian farce, and this piece reflected that with its bright, lively, light feeling.

Marsalis moved to center stage for the second and third movements, Modéré, with its pop-music-pretty melody, and Brazileira, its most Brazilian of moods.

The program was changed from the stage, adding the composition “Vento em Madeira” by Léa Freire. One could hear Brazilian dance accents and a touch of Aaron Copland, too, with some improvised measures by Marsalis on soprano.

Speaking of Copland, Philarmonia Brasileira began the afternoon on its own with Camargo Guarnieri’s “Abertura Concertante,” a work dedicated to the Americana composer.

It also performed, without Marsalis, Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9.” Jardim’s baton work was evident on this one: His direction is clear, the better to lead the orchestra through its many changes.

For an encore, Marsalis and ensemble performed an instrumental version of “Beatriz,” a song by Brazil’s national treasure, Chico Buarque, and Edu Lobo. It was a lovely melody to end on.

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