By Dennis Polkow
Legendary trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis has worn many musical hats across his remarkable career. Thus, the idea that Ravinia would co-commission a concerto from a guy who studied at Juilliard and performed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto with his hometown New Orleans Philharmonic when he was a mere 14 years old is not so strange.
What might be a surprise is Marsalis’s next choice of instrument: the violin. “I love the violin,” admits Marsalis. “I’ve always been fascinated with American fiddle music, and I would actually practice those tunes on my horn to try to develop a sense of what that language is and how to improvise in that language.
“If I play in a jazz language,” says Marsalis, reaching for a flugelhorn to demonstrate, “it sounds, you know—”; he breaks off and plays some bright, blustery trumpet-like jazz licks. “But if I’m playing in a fiddle language,” he continues, playing the same bit with phrasing, legato, and touches of vibrato more violin-like, “it’s like this. I would practice a little tune like that in all the keys and just try to hear the sound of that music.
“That’s how I learn languages: I’ll take a basic tune and just start improvising on that tune and try to find out how much I can make my improvisation develop the thematic material of that tune. That’s something I started working on years ago. I got a lot of fiddle music in me [because] I’ve known and heard Mark O’Connor since I was in high school.
“I’ve written a lot of pieces, and every piece I’ve written squeezes out some of that fiddle tradition. You’ll find things from it in the string quartet [At the Octoroon Balls] that I wrote in the ’90s, [as well as] All Rise [and] The Fiddler and the Dancin’ Witch at the end of the ’90s. The violin concerto [Concerto in D] gave me a chance to investigate that [further]. And you know, slaves played a lot of fiddle in America. A slave fiddler was worth as much as the biggest worker; two thousand dollars if you played fiddle.”
“Wynton knows more about certain kinds of fiddle music than I do,” says violinist Nicola Benedetti, for whom Marsalis’s Concerto in D was written and who will be performing its American premiere at Ravinia on July 12. “As far away as our worlds may seem from a distance, [and] the more you look into the trajectory that I have so far experienced [through] the age of 28 and that he went through in his younger years—not so much in terms of what it looks like from the outside, but what they felt like from the inside—there are a lot of similarities with him becoming incredibly famous and well-known very young. I have a similar experience, obviously on a significantly smaller scale, as mine was more focused within the UK. I have received a lot of invaluable experience and guidance from him.”
“I’ve known Nicky for a long time and [have] always respected her artistry,” says Marsalis of Benedetti. “She plays with such depth of feeling, the same as that Anglo-Afro-Scottish tradition. It was natural to write a piece for her because I know her so well and talk to her a lot. She’s extremely intelligent and works with kids; she and I have a lot in common—a social consciousness of the need for classical music, a belief in practicing—so there were a lot of common touch points. I don’t mind working on stuff, and she helped me working on the piece. I’ve never written for violin, and one initial miscalculation I made was how soft the instrument is.
“One of the things I had to learn with the piece after I wrote it was how to control the dynamics, when to bring things down. You know, when someone’s playing a piece, you don’t want them to fight the entire time that they’re playing to get over a lot of sound. But when you’re orchestrating, you want a lot of color and you want everybody playing, you don’t want people just sitting around. For me, it’s been an education to the get the right setting and the right volume.
“I worked on it and got all the dynamics down. I didn’t have to change a lot of orchestration, but I had to get out of her way. If I understood the difference of the way that piano and pianissimo and pianiss-ISS-imo work,” Marsalis laughs, “I would have gotten a lot further! You know what I mean, as a trumpet player, man, we barely understand piano [as an indication of ‘soft’]! If we see two p’s, pp, or, like, three p’s, ppp, we don’t [actually] see that: we have a filter or a piano dysfunction. If we see ppp on a piece of music, we think that means you don’t want us to play! We don’t even look at those kind of dynamics, man. ‘Aw, he didn’t really mean that.’”
How did the idea of a Marsalis violin concerto come about? “I think it happened through a really prolonged admiration [from] me toward him,” says Benedetti, “and then the honor of actually having the chance to interface with that person. The idea started off with something very much smaller scale: the idea mainly of a solo violin work. That had been discussed very casually for probably two years—and kind of went nowhere. Eventually, after a certain live recording of mine that he heard, he said, ‘Look, why don’t we look at doing a concerto?’
“I couldn’t breathe for a whole day, I was so excited and immediately called my manager and said, ‘This is unbelievable!’ But I was immediately wary. All Wynton said was that he was willing to do it; it didn’t mean it was actually happening, because there are a million hoops to jump through.
“It is very complicated to commission a new work, even with somebody like him. Not everybody is aware of the body of work that he has written for classical instruments. A lot of people aren’t even aware that he has recorded every piece of classical trumpet repertoire there is to record! It’s incredible how pigeonholed some people’s awareness of who he is as a musician is.”
But what about that solo violin work? “There are people for whom a project that seems a little more graspable or something that is easier to deal with will be more appealing for them,” says Benedetti. “But I think with Wynton it’s the opposite: the more enormous a challenge it is, the more likely it is that he wants to pursue that. The first time I ever thought that through, actually, just on the idea of writing a full-scale concerto with multiple commissioning parties [Ravinia’s partners include the London Symphony Orchestra, which gave the concerto’s world premiere, as well as the Los Angeles and Netherlands Radio Philharmonics, National Symphony Orchestra, and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester], is something that had that level of grandeur and importance. I also think he prefers to write longer pieces.
“I think in a way, it was more likely that we were going to get a large piece written when we settled on that idea versus the solo violin piece. I’m still determined he’s going to write a solo violin piece, too, because he loves fiddle music so much.”
As for the qualities in Marsalis’s compositions that Benedetti admired enough to pursue her initial commission idea, she is quick to say, “Oh, hundreds of things. I mean, speaking most generally and from an emotional standpoint, it is music that is so complex, clearly multilayered and intellectual, yet never abandons the desire to engage people. I hear that always when I hear his music. Also, the strong narrative that runs through so much of his music, one that doesn’t accept, but challenges injustice; one that always has a resolution in uplift and in bringing people together; one that doesn’t shy away from truth, and very harsh ones at that. But equally is not lacking in hope and is very celebratory.
“These are all just basic human qualities that I am on the lookout for all the time. You do find them in some people, in some musicians, but rarely is such a vision confronted and attacked with that much consistency in the way that Wynton has done throughout his musical life. To say he’s an inspiration to me is a gross understatement. He’s one of the biggest inspirations I’ve ever come across in my life.”
Despite the Concerto in D being composed for violin and orchestra, given its employment of elements of jazz, does Marsalis envision it as jazz reimagined for larger forces? “Jazz touches on many aspects of American music, of Anglo-Celtic music, and orchestral music,” says Marsalis. “And because I also grew up playing music in other traditions, I try to find those things that we have in common, those attitudes that give us a chance to play some music that makes it possible for us to speak a common language.
“It’s not jazz in that nobody improvises. But it is jazz in that it has the blues and elements of swing in it. But I also find a common ground with the American fiddle tradition, which is Anglo-Celtic and Afro-American. You take a thing from Scotland—they have a similar fiddle tradition that we also play—and you take different grooves like the concept of a burlesque, the concept of a hoedown; there are certain concepts that all these have in common.
“Sometimes I’ll make an amalgamation of very different attitudes, like the French painter Henri Matisse when he went to write his book of collages on jazz, or actually, about the circus. In the same way, we listen to early Louis Armstrong in King Oliver’s band, that band sounds like a calliope. So there’s a relationship between the concept of ragtime and the circus.
“In order to cross-reference this kind of thing [you have to] find a common vocabulary with a group of musicians who are fantastic musicians—and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra [has] the greatest musicians in the world—but not trained in jazz with the common language that we all speak.”
And yet, when Marsalis says that there is no improvisation in the Concerto in D, isn’t the goal is to make it sound as if there is? “Yeah, some aspects of it, definitely,” says Marsalis. “That’s the goal of any performer. Even with the concertos for classical instruments you play, you want to give it the feeling much like a great storyteller or actor, to make you feel like this is real life.
“When you write a jazz piece [with] singers, or anything that has a back-and-forth dialogue between an ensemble and an instrument, and that singer or instrumentalist has a dialogue with an ensemble, it’s like a concerto, they’re going back and forth. This is the first thing that I’ve written named a ‘concerto,’ but I’ve done other pieces that utilized that same type of form.”
Marsalis was not able to attend the world premiere of the Concerto in D in London last November, but he will be coming to the American premiere at Ravinia. “I love Ravinia,” says Marsalis. “I grew up listening to a recording of the Chicago Symphony playing the ‘Brandenburg’ Concertos that was done at Ravinia. So in the ’70s, I listened to records from there. Then when I had the opportunity to play at Ravinia, I came so many times when Gerry Mulligan was artistic director of jazz; also with Ramsey Lewis [in that role], I came a lot.
“I was there all through the years when Michael Jordan [was] playing [with the Bulls]. We had a hoop out in the back, and before the concert we’d be playing ball, too! I came so many times, and it’s one of my favorite venues to go to. And the Chicago Symphony, man, how could you not love them? As a brass player, of course, that’s brass heaven! I’m honored to have Nicky and the Chicago Symphony play my piece at Ravinia: I am blessed. I just hope people enjoy it. That’s the main thing.”
“I think the piece is an absolutely brilliant piece,” assesses Benedetti. “I think it’s an uplifting piece, a piece with really incredible melodic and virtuosic material that is unbelievably strong and clear. It has such definitive expression; the kind of creativity and lack of repeating what has gone before it, something I feel is unique. I personally could not be more excited about the piece and excited that I will on some level forever be related to that piece.”
Veteran, award-winning journalist and critic Dennis Polkow is columnist for Newcity Chicago and a Chicago correspondent for the London-based Seen and Heard International.
Tickets for the July 12 American premiere of Wynton Marsalis's violin concerto can be purchased at Ravinia.org