It might come off as faint praise or veiled criticism to say that a performer wears his heart on his sleeve. Neither characterization applies to violinist Daniel Hope, whose open-hearted approach to repertory and interpretation delivers an ingratiating blend of familiarity and freshness.
Choice after choice on America, his aptly named new Deutsche Grammophon release, is resolutely mainstream. There’s a suite of Gershwin standards, including “Summertime,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “The Man I Love,” another drawn from Bernstein’s West Side Story, and a third from works by Kurt Weill, with “Mack the Knife” and “Speak Low” among the selections. Copland is represented by a pair of folksong settings followed by “Hoe-down” from the composer’s Rodeo ballet score and Duke Ellington by “Come Sunday.” In this company, Sam Cooke (“A Change is Going to Come”) and Florence Price (“Adoration”) count as outliers. The collection ends with, as it were, the title song: “America the Beautiful.”
Hope’s main musical partner here is the Zurich Chamber Orchestra, one of four organizations the busy Berlin-based fiddler leads. In addition to his post there as music director, Hope is artistic director of both San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra and the Frauenkirche of Dresden and president of Bonn’s Beethoven-Haus.
Add to this list his collaboration with the Marcus Roberts Trio, which provides a loose-limbed improvisatory kick to the five Gershwin numbers that open the recording. An uptempo “Fascinating Rhythm” sets Hope off on a light-footed flight early on. Roberts steps up on piano in the middle section, complicating matters in a delightfully discursive riff. When the violin returns later on, there’s a new lift, enough to prompt a neat key change near the end.
When Hope recorded “Summertime” on a previous, early-in-the-pandemic 2020 release, Hope at Home, he sauntered through it. This time there’s more slow-burn humidity. Roberts, along with bass player Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis, turn up the heat in a persistent, steadily pulsing interlude that refashions the number’s rhythmic grid. A whole season seems to have passed by the time Hope tosses off a wry little shrug of a figure to close.
The Zurich string players are there to sweeten “’S Wonderful” and add Nelson Riddle-seque lushness to a deliciously extended “The Man I Love.” In the latter, Roberts’s cool piano riffs, intercut by a surprisingly spare passage, give the song an altogether successful makeover.
Hope bids farewell to the jazz trio after the Gershwin set, and it’s a shame not to have them on hand for more. Sensitive as the violinist’s exchanges with the orchestra are, the album loses some of its liberating spontaneous feel. Also come and gone too quickly is vocalist Jay Denalane, whose account of Cooke’s “A Change Is Going to Come” is delivered in a rich musical vernacular of long liquid line balanced by clipped short phrases,
The Bernstein medley is a deftly assembled tribute to great score proven timeless in new terms by the recent Steven Spielberg-directed West Side Story film, Hope and his Zurich band tread lightly here, knowing to let the music bare its tender, youthfully beating heart. “America” gets some light pizzicato stippling. “Somewhere” is at once effectively understated and enriched by the transparent harmonic weave of soloist and orchestra. “Mambo” percolates at just the right temperature.
In the two Copland songs, Hope opens the valves. The soloist sings. The orchestra responds with full-throated swells. A listener rides the broad prairie wave of American nostalgia in “Long Time Ago” and “At the River.” “Hoe-down,” the only clear miss in the collection, lacks the number’s infectiously accented crispness.
Both Ellington’s patiently voiced “Come Sunday” and Price’s seductively swaying “Adoration” land well. So do the four Weill songs that benefit from Hope’s improvisatory licks, notably in “My Ship.” “September Song” ramps up into some urgent figuration. A cooled down “Mack the Knife” has a breezy soft swing.
“America the Beautiful,” which Hope also included in Hope at Home, seems an unlikely calling card, so deeply ingrained in listeners it can pass by on automatic pilot, hardly heard. Hope and his orchestra explore it in a manner that’s straightforward but not routine, slowing down the tempo just enough to makes the American experiment itself seem at once fragile, resilient, and precious. Beautiful it truly is.