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30.1.13

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra -- Whither WPAS?

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

The Neale Perl era at Washington Performing Arts Society is coming to an end, and the organization has just announced its new leader, Jenny Bilfield, who will take over as President and CEO of WPAS in April. The official announcement was made last night, before WPAS's presentation of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. What will it mean for WPAS's schedule to have Bilfield -- whose previous work at Stanford emphasized more cross-cultural programming than purely classical music -- at the helm?

No one really knows yet. Anne Midgette has some thoughts on the appointment -- although, as she is quick to make clear, she and Bilfield are friends -- and she thinks it is a good sign that WPAS is "shaking off the 'stodginess' label with a vengeance." We can perhaps guess what that means in concrete terms for WPAS: less Takács Quartet and more Kronos Quartet, less Royal Concertgebouw and more eighth blackbird, less Angela Hewitt and more Esperanza Spalding. The programming at Stanford Lively Arts is indeed quite like what Susie Farr, formerly programming director at the University of California at Berkeley's Cal Performances, has brought to the Clarice Smith Center in recent years -- a position from which Farr will be retiring at the end of this season. There is nothing wrong with broader programming, and WPAS could benefit from a slight shaking up of its "big name" programming -- how many times hearing Joshua Bell or Yo-Yo Ma is too many? -- but we would hate to see the otherwise laudable goal of broader programming come with the sacrifice of not hearing the marquee musicians that only WPAS has tended to sponsor here in Washington.

After all, WPAS already hosts a number of jazz and popular music events, and like this concert they are often beautiful and high-profile performances. With the programming narrated by Wynton Marsalis, from his place in the back row with the other trumpets, this concert began with a first half in tribute to a great Washingtonian, Duke Ellington. Wailing reeds and the chatter of dirty trumpets marked The Mooche, with a howling solo by trombonist Chris Crenshaw, followed by some late Ellington in Chinoiserie. The only really familiar tune in the set was Mood Indigo, with a cool trio of clarinet, trumpet, and trombone out in front, paired with a rarity in Braggin' in Brass, with a rapid-fire solo from Marsalis. The tribute concluded with the substantial Toot Suite, which showed off the big orchestration that was the hallmark of the Ellington Orchestra. Listening to this set silenced the expected objections that Marsalis is a sort of museum curator, ignoring the newest developments in jazz -- that may be true, but what he aims to preserve is so good and so important. I, for one, do not care if the ensemble is on the conservative side -- even the Vienna Philharmonic has some women players now, one might observe -- because to listen to Ellington's music revived this way was such a thrill.


Other Articles:

Max Radwin, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to return to Hill for anniversary tour (The Michigan Daily, January 30)

Alison Samuels, Wynton Marsalis Celebrates 25 Years of Jazz at Lincoln Center (The Daily Beast, January 25)

The second half was bound to disappoint by comparison, but pieces by John Lewis, Gerry Mulligan, and some members of the orchestra brought in other facets of the history of jazz. Mulligan's Over the Hill and Out of the Woods, with its parts for flutes, was a happy-go-lucky multi-metric frolic, while Sherman Irby's Insatiable Hunger was a raucous tribute to Dante's Inferno. The closing Kenny Dorham tune (Stage West?) featured Irby's alto saxophone in a crazy solo and brought the house down. A long ovation prevailed in coaxing an encore from a small group -- just Marsalis and his rhythm section, joined later by Irby -- in Billy Strayhorn's iconic Take the 'A' Train.

With the important goal of keeping this music alive for future generations, Jazz at Lincoln Center is starting a Summer Music Institute for young jazz musicians this summer, on the beautiful campus of Santa Barbara City College. Pass the word along to the young musicians in your life.

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