Arsht Center concert bridges jazz-classical divide

 

Jazz meets classical at this concert with Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin performing with violinist Mark O’Connor and the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.

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By Fernando Gonzalez

The line that separates high art and popular culture has long been blurred, but old habits die hard. The relationship between European classical music and jazz remains, for some in both camps, an object of fascination and suspicion, of respect tinged with dismissiveness.

Many of the points of contention are as old as jazz: A music of composers versus a music of performers; adherence to the written note versus improvisation; formality versus swing.

Jazz and the Philharmonic, an ambitious Jazz Roots concert at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on Friday evening, aims to put those arguments to rest.

The program includes music by Bach, Debussy and Copland but also by American film composer Henry Mancini, pianist Dave Grusin and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. The excellent cast of performers includes Grusin, Blanchard, pianists Chick Corea, Shelly Berg and Elizabeth Roe, vocalist Bobby McFerrin, violinist Mark O’Connor and the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra.

The evening, a collaboration by the Arsht Center, the Frost School and the Miami-based YoungArts Foundation, is part of YoungArts Week, and will be shot by PBS for a special to be broadcast later this year.

“For the fifth anniversary season of Jazz Roots, I wanted to do something special, a ‘What’s-on-your-wish-list?’ kind of thing, so I had this idea of Jazz and the Philharmonic, which, of course, is a play on [legendary jazz impresario] Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic,” says producer Larry Rosen.

“He was such a visionary in his thinking. But his idea was primarily, ‘How we can take these bebop guys out of the clubs and put them in large concert halls?’ There was no classical music connection there. … In Jazz and the Philharmonic we take jazz and classical music and combine the genres, but in order to do that I had to get the artists who had the breadth to make that connection.”

Rosen incorporated works that reflect the influence of classical music on jazz and pop, such as Spanish Suite, a piece based on Corea’s classic Spain, which in turn draws on Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, and an excerpt from Blanchard’s Champion, an opera based on the life of prizefighter Emile Griffith that will receive its world premiere in June.

“So it started to become a program of not only European classical composers but actually the common denominator became great composers,” Rosen said.

For Berg, a composer and arranger who is also dean of the Frost School and a YoungArts master teacher, “there is tremendous value in this concert.

“For one thing we are playing great music. We are playing Bach and Debussy and opening it up for creativity and reinvention. … I think people want to hear personality. So in this concert we have great music re-imagined with personality and individuality.”

In fact, Berg says, “Almost everything in this concert has been arranged by students and faculty of the Frost School. I’ve written two of the pieces, and we have some incredible graduate student composer-arrangers who have written some amazing music.”

M. John Richard, president and CEO of the Arsht Center, describes the concert as “a weeklong music festival in two hours. The combination of artistry in jazz, the Mancini Orchestra and YoungArts is unique to Miami. … It is the centerpiece of our mission to be both world-class and community based — and these are not mutually exclusive categories.”

As for the gap between classical music and jazz, Berg says, “We are finding more and more players bridging that gap. They are precisely the type of students who are coming to the school to the Mancini Institute. …

“Thinking of music as an act of creation slowly eroded in classical music ever since the advent of recordings because in recordings you can make it perfect and once you can make it perfect, the goal becomes to make it perfect. … And it crowds everything out, it crowds out composing, improvisation, even in many cases understanding the very music that you are playing,” says Berg, who grew up in both worlds.

“So yes, there was huge divide because jazz players didn’t have to worry about hitting every note correctly. They were creators, and the classical players stopped creating. This is a phenomenon of the last 100 years. Mozart, Beethoven Bach, all those great composers were also great improvisers.

“Now you find [violinist] Joshua Bell, [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma, [pianist] Gabriela Montero, and you’re finding more and more classical musicians who are seeking to have more of a creative hand in it. What is the difference in listening to a recording and going to a live concert if it can’t ever change, if it’s fixed?” Berg says.

“I’m very happy with what we are doing here because I believe it’s going to make a difference.”

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