High Impact Review

Capital Region Performance Gallery Concert Review, Folsom Lake Symphony

High Impact – October 19, 2019 by Dick Frantzreb

With a title of “High Impact” and featuring a bass trombone concerto, all who attended this concert knew they were in for something special, and with the evening’s many highlights, they were not disappointed. But the first highlight occurred before the first piece on the program was performed.

Maestro Jaffe entered the stage, almost on the run, and gave a gesture to begin a drum roll on the snare drum. We in the audience had no idea what he had in mind as he mounted the conductor’s platform, had the players rise with a sweep of his arm, and shook hands with the Concertmaster. Then he asked us to stand and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was an extraordinary experience. First, it was a rousing arrangement, conducted by Jaffe with gusto. And when does one get to sing the National Anthem to the accompaniment of a 70-piece orchestra? But more than all that was the symbolism. In the healthy shock of this unexpected moment was a reminder that, despite all the divisiveness in our country, despite all the different opinions that we might have carried with us into the concert hall ― we all had a commitment to America, represented by the anthem that nearly all of us had all sung since childhood. And that commitment transcended all opinions about the political climate, into a more profound commitment to one another.

(Click here to open the concert program in a new window. I suggest that you pay particular attention to the program notes written by Jane Vial Jaffe.)

In his set-up for the first selection on this evening’s program, Jaffe spoke about guest artist Chris Brubeck and his Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra. Anticipating that the audience might not be prepared for jazz from the Folsom Lake Symphony, he reviewed some of the explorations into jazz by various classical composers. Then he warned that the concerto to come is squarely in the jazz genre, adding “So loosen up everybody.”

At this point Brubeck entered the stage, and Jaffe invited him to talk about the origin of his concerto. Brubeck explained that he had played the bass trombone since his days in a youth symphony orchestra. And since classical music typically calls on the trombone only for special effects, he spent years of frustration counting rests as he waited for the opportunity to play ― and dreaming that “Someday I’ll get my revenge.” Brubeck went on to comment on the inspiration of the three parts of his concerto, as well as the recent history of its growing appreciation by the public.

The performance began with a frenetic display of drumming that signaled the insanely fast tempos for the rest of the first movement (“Paradise Utopia”). I kept asking myself what the time signature for the music might be, imagining that it must have changed frequently. It certainly required intense concentration by the orchestra members and gave Conductor Jaffe a tremendous workout. But that was exceeded by Brubeck’s workout as he coaxed sounds from his bass trombone that I dare say most of us had never heard. Personally, I found it refreshing to hear so much from this versatile instrument, though one couldn’t hear its lowest notes with smiling. Still, I don’t think it was any inherent humor in the trombone that kept Brubeck and Jaffe smiling at each other. They were having great fun negotiating the challenges of the piece and channeling its enormous energy.

The second movement (“Sorrow Floats”) was far more lyrical, giving extended passages to the strings and then the flutes, clarinets and French Horns. After a few moments, I noticed a fine incidental solo from the cello. From the trombone, we heard sweet, melancholy sounds ― contemplative, even lush. It was a very different musical journey from what we had heard in the first movement, and it featured more virtuoso trombone playing that even included sounds that struck me as delicate.

As the third movement (“James Brown in the Twilight Zone”) was about to begin, I noticed Jaffe giving Brubeck a smile of anticipation. I understood why when the movement began with an extended trombone solo in which Brubeck gave a fanciful wandering through the trombone’s range in what was clearly improvisation. Once again, I don’t understand how anyone could have heard this tour-de-force without smiling at what seemed like the bravado of this imposing instrument.

Presently Brubeck was playing again from a score, throwing multiple sheets to the floor as he maintained the rapid tempo of the music. It was hard to turn my attention from Brubeck, though I noticed an extended pizzicato section by the strings (the only section I could see from my seat). I’m sure the rest of the orchestra was playing like they had rarely, if ever, played ― except perhaps for the individuals among them who have performed in jazz ensembles.

The concerto as a whole, and this movement in particular, were a fountain of musical ideas, with something unexpected moment by moment. Beyond that, it all just rocked. There were occasional passages of overt humor during which I caught twitters of laughter from the audience. I even noticed smiles among the typically impassive orchestra members at times when they weren’t playing.

It really seemed as if Brubeck were letting out years of stifling and frustration, showing what the bass trombone can do and how expressive it can be. Then the piece concluded with a brash ending, resulting in excited cheers from the crowd. Jaffee and Brubeck exchanged a hug, a testament to their chemistry and the fact that the two have known each other for almost 2 decades and have collaborated before.

With the applause subsided and Brubeck having left the stage, Jaffe introduced the next piece, Brubeck’s arrangement for orchestra of his father’s (Dave Brubeck) famous “Unsquare Dance.” We were told that Brubeck would accompany the piece on electric bass and would sing lyrics that he had written. That might have been surprise enough, but then Jaffe announced, “I know you didn’t sign up for this, but you’re going to clap in 7/4 time. I know you can do it because I’ve seen fourth graders do it.” With that, he demonstrated 7 beats in 2 twos, and a three: stomp-clap-stomp-clap-stomp-clap-clap, with the first two claps at chest level and the last two over one’s head. Then with the perfect unison of which they are capable, the entire orchestra jumped to their feet to illustrate the stomping-clapping sequence several times with Jaffe.

Now it was the audience’s turn. Though I was sitting at the very front of the theater, my sense is that most of us performed the sequence several times as we sat in our seats. Then we practiced several more times substituting finger-snapping for clapping. Jaffe went on to explain: “There’s no pressure, but doing this is a direct measure of your worth as a person. And you don’t have to do it all the time [just on my cue].”

At this point Brubeck returned to the stage with his electric bass, and spoke briefly about the piece and the difficulty in “singing words in 7/4 time and staying on pitch.” When the piece began, it felt a little like pandemonium. Brubeck was singing words, improvising on the bass, and doing a bit of scat singing. There were flashes of incidental solos from different parts of the orchestra. Jaffe was clowning a bit and having more fun than anyone. Periodically, he yelled “Do it,” and that was our signal for a series of stomp-clapping in 7/4 time. Through it all, I saw a lot of foot tapping ― around me in the audience and among the orchestra members. And I never stopped smiling. I bet no one else did, either.

Then after applause and cheers from the audience and another hug from Jaffe (and a bouquet from a very poised little girl), Brubeck left the stage. But then we heard a rumble. It was the orchestra tapping their feet on the floor and slapping their knees, demanding another curtain call from Brubeck. It was so well deserved: honestly, I can’t remember ever having so much fun at an orchestral concert.

After intermission, we were all ready for a very different musical experience, Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. Jaffe began speaking about the piece as “one of the most romantic, passionate pieces” in the classical repertoire. Then he ventured into a little sarcasm, characterizing Rachmaninoff’s composition as “wallowing in [one’s] own glorious self-pity and loving it. Isn’t that what life is all about? It feels like life is over at bar 1.” Then Jaffe noted the length of each movement, adding “Looking forward to seeing you in about an hour.”

But none of this was real disdain. Instead, Jaffe was indulging in a little deprecatory humor to fortify himself for the hour-long, intense emotional journey on which he would be leading the orchestra, while immersing himself in every nuance of the music’s passion.

The first movement did, indeed, have a dark, somber beginning, but there was an immediate ebb and flow of emotion, modeled by Jaffe’s body language as he turned to each orchestral section, signaling the importance of what was about to come.

As the piece progressed, it occurred to me that music is a wordless language. A particular composition ― this one, for example ― may be as foreign as Sanskrit to the average listener, but everyone picks up at least a hint of meaning. And those with broader musical knowledge or those with information about a composer’s state of mind ― or those with simply a more fertile imagination ― will draw more meaning from the music. Also, a sharp or more educated or more experienced ear will identify a motif and recognize when it has been repeated. I can’t claim those aptitudes, but I, and perhaps many (or even most) of the audience, could still experience some of the music’s constant flood of emotions that we saw expressed in Jaffe as he conducted. There were exciting moments, sometimes with surprising intensity; then there were lulling moments of surpassing beauty. If the music of the first half of this evening was pure fun, the music of this second half was soul-nourishing.

Periodically my attention would focus on the individual members of this responsive orchestra, each person attentive and intensely focused. It struck me that this is the epitome of cooperation, perhaps a model for a more perfect society in which each person is dedicated to a shared goal and with a common understanding of that goal. But there’s something else I imagined as I scanned the players. Surely each thinks of himself as an artist. An orchestra of musical mechanics wouldn’t be worth listening to. But the cumulative effect of the contributions of those who think and act like artists makes a product that is art ― and that’s what I heard throughout the performance of this symphony.

The second movement (“allegro molto”) began with frenetic playing by the strings. The fast tempo made me write in my notes, “Is this just an intellectual exercise?” Turning days later to Jane Jaffe’s commentary in the program, I see her analysis of the interplay of themes, and I can understand the pleasure that would derive from recognizing the structure of a piece of music as it unfolds. There’s something else, though. This symphony may have been an hour long, but I didn’t experience a sense of repetitiveness: I was conscious of a continuous flow of one musical idea after another. Indeed, as the performance of the third movement began, I reflected on the great pleasure that is possible in following a melodic line, in perceiving nuance, even the pleasure that can come from the occasional surprise of an explosion of sound.

It seems to me that at the most fundamental level, one goes to a concert to hear the music and watch the conductor. And Peter Jaffe is fascinating to watch. I’d venture to say that, as he conducts, his actions are the purest form of dance ― every movement in harmony with the constantly changing music. It was especially in the fourth movement of the Rachmaninoff that I observed Jaffe completely transported by the music. And that led me to wonder whether a conductor directs the music or allows the music to carry him. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

As Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony came to a close, the audience was immediately on its feet, applauding and cheering. Jaffe pointed to one section of the orchestra after another, and they stood and took their bows. Then that same flower girl brought a bouquet to him. In thanking her, he had her stand on his podium, while he invited the audience to recognize her contribution to the evening. Then they both left the stage. But that wasn’t enough for the orchestra, whose foot stomping demanded that Jaffe return for another curtain call. As the excitement subsided, it struck me that, beginning with the inspired performances by Jaffe and Brubeck, and playing by the orchestra that was thoroughly professional and often truly heroic, this evening was nothing short of a triumph for the Folsom Lake Symphony.

Dick Frantzreb is editor of the Capital Region Performance Gallery.  He also edits the Sacramento Choral Calendar and the Placer Performance Calendar, and he was a co-founder and past President of the Sacramento Valley Choral Coalition. He has been loving live performances in the greater Sacramento area and writing about them since 2012.

Original Article Post: www.perfcal.com/FolsomLakeSym/Reviews/FLS_10-19-19.htm