The New York Philharmonic opens its season with a new Wynton Marsalis work

By Jay Nordlinger

Wynton Marsalis is a big national figure, our number-one jazzman, practically synonymous with jazz, for many Americans. A trumpeter, he combines Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and nearly everyone else. He was a big influence on Ken Burns’ influential television series on jazz. He is artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and music director of its orchestra.

He has always had a foot, or a toe, in the classical-music world. Early on, he made acclaimed and excellent recordings of the Haydn, Hummel and other trumpet concertos. And he has written music performed by his neighbor, the New York Philharmonic. One work had the alluring title “All Rise.” And he wrote something performed by the Philharmonic on the opening night of its 2010-11 season. The concert was a gala affair, as most opening nights are: Flowers bedecked the stage, and television cameras lurked and glided.

The new Marsalis piece is called Swing Symphony (Symphony No. 3). The piece had a bevy of commissioners, in the modern fashion—either commissions have gotten higher, or institutions have gotten poorer. The commissioners were the Berlin Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Barbican in London and our own Philharmonic. The work had its premiere in Berlin a few months ago. Here in New York, the work was performed not quite in its entirety: According to the program, one movement was omitted. But, at about 45 minutes, the symphony was none too short.

Before the downbeat was given, it was clear, on the stage, that there were some ringers in the orchestra. In fact, there was a “whole ’nother” orchestra: Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. This second ensemble was plunked in the middle of the Philharmonic. Swing Symphony is for jazz orchestra and symphony orchestra, together. And it is, quite simply, a jazz piece. There is nothing much classical about it. It is far more “swing” than “symphony.” The jazzmen have pride of place all through, standing for their solo flights, in the traditional manner. The symphony orchestra provides accompaniment, or window dressing. It was sort of amusing to see Carter Brey, the distinguished principal cello, sawing away, not entirely relevantly.

Who has blended classical music and jazz, successfully? Gershwin, of course. And Bernstein, to a degree—a considerable degree. (Think of the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.) It is no easy trick. In this latest piece, at least, Marsalis does not so much blend as flavor—flavor his jazz with the classical.

His piece has an aim, or an agenda. Or maybe it would be better to say that it seeks to tell a story. James M. Keller, in his program notes, called the work “a symphonic meditation on the evolution of swing.” One movement is titled “St. Louis to New Orleans”; another is called “Manhattan to L.A.” The music, from first to last, is pleasant: kind of a pleasant jazz wash. There is lots of noodling, lots of meandering. There is a general feeling of, “We have all the time in the world here. Just sit back and relax.” Jazz pieces of the past are quoted, their styles amplified and celebrated.

Again, everything is pleasant—and harmless, and not very memorable. This is not music to stick to your ribs, or linger in your brain. There is at least one nicely hypnotic spell. But too much of the score has the air of background music. And some of the slower sections have a whiff of the elevator. Someone said afterward—probably referring to the peppier sections—“I wanted to get up and dance!” A significant remark. As you know, jazz took a great turning when people ceased to dance to it and sat there and listened, as to Brahms quartets.

In my view, Swing Symphony was not an appropriate work for the opening of the New York Philharmonic season—the Philharmonic is for classical music, after all. Isn’t classical music supposed to be on hard times? Isn’t jazz prominent enough in our lives? Swing Symphony is more appropriate for a pops concert. But, sadly, there are fewer and fewer of those in America. Let me hasten to say how much I love jazz. And let me plead some credentials: I grew up playing jazz, as did my father before me. I am steeped in this music. It is like bread and water—and hamburgers and hot-fudge sundaes. But I do not believe that Swing Symphony should have opened the Philharmonic’s season.

The thought occurred to me, “How many classical composers were denied the opportunity to write something for this august occasion? Why did we have to bow to Wynton Marsalis’ celebrity?” But then, who’s to say that the classical composer would have written something as good? At least, however, it would have been a piece of classical music. Still, we can all recognize the usefulness of celebrity to an institution’s bottom line.

By the way, Itzhak Perlman has now been added to the New York Philharmonic’s board of directors—as has another starry violinist, from a later generation: Joshua Bell. Perlman played on the second concert of the Philharmonic season: the Mendelssohn Concerto. Bell will play the Sibelius in coming days.

The Philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert, conducted Swing Symphony with care and affinity. And the composer himself was in the orchestra—in the jazz orchestra, with the Philharmonic around him. He blew magnificently, as usual. I don’t say that he is not a national treasure (a term sometimes used with irony or sarcasm, though not here). I say other things.

Finally, have a note about the opening piece on the program: not the Marsalis symphony, but the national anthem. It is customary, at the Philharmonic, to open the season with the anthem, as it is at the Metropolitan Opera. For some years, the two main conductors in town were Lorin Maazel, at the Philharmonic, and James Levine, at the Met. (Levine is still with us, provided his back is working.) Some of us used to say that the two men’s anthem-conducting sort of epitomized them, as conductors. Levine was always straightforward, no-nonsense, brisk and compact. He gave the piece a little verve, and some bounce. Maazel was prone to drawing the piece out, and fussing with it a little. But the anthem could be superb in his hands: with proud swellings, and a shiver-making climax.

Alan Gilbert? Slow, matter-of-fact, a little indifferent—not much there. The maestro did better by Marsalis.