The Jazz Age: Arapahoe Philharmonic
A review by Betsy Schwarm
A concert on Valentine’s Day with no sign of Romeo and Juliet? As it happens, the Arapahoe Philharmonic’s program had originally been scheduled for one week earlier. However, Colorado’s often unpredictable weather had other ideas, so the concert was rescheduled. Never fear: there was still much to love about the performance. Those who fit the new concert date into their schedules were amply rewarded.
The concert theme was “The Jazz Age,” with works by George Gershwin, William Grant Still, and Duke Ellington serving as star attractions. That the latter two of those three gentlemen were African-American, and that the Gershwin selection, Porgy and Bess, told a specifically African-American tale, happened to connect to February being Black History Month. In the pre-concert talk, conductor/music director Devin Patrick Hughes and his two guests, principal trumpeter Tony Zator and principal percussionist Joey Glassman, emphasized that there are various approaches to jazz and to combining jazz flavors with classical structures. That the gentlemen took the time to point this out even before the program began surely helped listeners to notice stylistic differences, adding extra richness to the experience.
Robert Russell Bennett’s suite from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess opened the Arapahoe Philharmonic’s program. The familiar tunes, from the jaunty I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ to the luscious Summertime, had been deftly shaded in Bennett’s arrangement, though it still fell to conductor Hughes and the individual players to make the most of the notes on the page. Each shift of mood received appropriate attention and even the two livelier melodies (I Got Plenty and It Ain’t Necessarily So) acquired a different flavor in Hughes’ emphasis upon tempo, dynamics, and punchiness (or smoothness) of rhythmic emphasis.
Grandest of all works on the program was Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930). This is no little jazz-infused tone poem, but rather a full, four-movement symphony drawing upon structural features that even Brahms would have recognized. Still’s writing especially favors woodwinds: no real surprise, as the Arkansas-born composer had made a point during his school years of learning to play most of the usual woodwind instruments. Clearly, the Arapahoe Philharmonic’s principal woodwind players relished (and merited) their time in the spotlight.
Special notice goes to English hornist Dawn McGonagle, whose plaintive tone carried the first minutes of the work. As the performance continued, flutist Evelyn Rutenberg, oboist Virginia Limbird, clarinetist Jason Richard Olney, substitute bass clarinetist Max Arakaki, and bassoonist Daniel Nester all proved that the composer’s familiarity with their instruments enabled him to bring out their varied voices. No disrespect to other sections of the ensemble is intended, and certainly, Still provided spotlight passages for principal trumpeter Tony Zator and principal trombonist Dave Ellis. However, the frequency of woodwind focus makes fairly clear where Still’s strongest sympathies lay.
Still’s Afro-American Symphony includes parts for harp and banjo. However, with the change of concert date, those two intended performers were no longer available. Enter pianist Cindi Hsu, who incorporated their music into her own, so that everything was present, even if the specific voice of the instrument had changed. As the composer had been an active performing musician, one imagines that he would have understood the situation and accepted the fact that sometimes live music may vary slightly from that which is on the page.
As to music varying “slightly from that which is on the page,” that, after all, may be the essence of jazz. Bluesy harmonies are one thing, but a flexible spirit is, perhaps, even more essential to that which personifies jazz. Thus, the second half of the Arapahoe Philharmonic concert became even “jazzier” than the first. Certainly, both Still and Gershwin knew perfectly well how to syncopate a rhythm and let it swing. However, once the notes are on the page, there arises the question of how one might flavor them, and the latter half of the concert allowed more potential for this seasoning.
This was especially true as intermission ended, and the Denver School of the Arts Jazz Combo took the stage: no orchestra at all, just a handful of young specialists in a pop music style that predates them by several generations. That jazz is still not only taught to, but also savored by, teenage musicians is, in its own way, just as gratifying as knowing that some of them are still learning to play the great classics. Their rendition of Cottontail was well-received, especially baritone saxophonist Camden Johnson’s extended solo; their Take the A Train brought down the house.
The remainder of the concert united the available forces, with members of the Combo taking seats within the Arapahoe Philharmonic. Calvin Custer’s arrangement of Big Band favorites benefitted from the larger forces, and Duke Ellington’ Black, Brown and Beige required them. Ellington attested that he intended it as a tribute to African-American culture: the opening movement to traditions of prayer and work, the central one to sacrifice, the last to the Harlem Renaissance. Even Ellington realized that a standard big band wasn’t meaty enough to take on such a range of moods, but that a work for orchestra alone would rather miss the point. Blending the Arapahoe Philharmonic with the DSA Jazz Combo gave conductor Hughes the resources to bring out the subtleties of Ellington’s colorful score and to close the orchestra’s “Jazz Age” program with all the flair that the music required.
For a community orchestra of mostly amateur players, however eager they might be, it was an ambitious program, but the Arapahoe Philharmonic did not disappoint. Throughout the evening, intricate rhythms hung together tidily, and the various soloists (not just woodwinds) showed no fear of the challenges before them. Conductor Devin Patrick Hughes deserves a large measure of the credit: to stretch one’s musicians (and one’s audience) without overwhelming them is a challenge in itself. However, having been around for what will soon be seventy years, the Arapahoe Philharmonic is in the habit of setting high standards for itself, and of achieving those standards.