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Swing Time

October 7, 2008

Before an attentive and animated audience on Sunday afternoon, Artistic and Executive Director of Stanford Lively Arts Jenny Bilfield concluded her opening remarks on what we should expect from this, the presenter's 39th season opener, by restating part of its mission: “We bring artists that don’t fall neatly into artistic guidelines and categories.”
Sunday's crowd understood that they were going to get something unusual simply by the unusual conjunction of jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis as headliner with the Philharmonia Brasiliera in a presentation titled "Marsalis Brasilianos." Truth be told, as an audience we didn’t exactly know what we were in for, but we all seemed to sense that it was going to be good.

It was, indeed, more than good — this concert was electrifying. Marsalis and the Philarmonia Brasiliera, were in stellar form as they enticed, lulled, impelled, and swept up their listeners in what was superficially a celebration of Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, but was really a celebration of the sort of collaboration that happens all too seldom on the concert stage. Marsalis easily crossed a boundary that, in reality, doesn't exist.

A brief survey of the program should provide a clue as to what I mean: The works of Carmago Guarnieri (Abertura Concertante — dedicated to Aaron Copland), Villa-Lobos (Fantasia for Saxophone), and Darius Milhaud (La Creation du monde) came before intermission, and Villa-Lobos (Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 & 9), Milhaud (Scaramouche), Lea Freire (Vento em Madeira), and Milton Nascimento (Vera Cruz) concluded the concert.

Marsalis and Gil Jardim, Philarmonia Brasileira's director, allowed every moment to resonate with a very special and unique quality, as though each note played on stage would be the last notes anyone in the hall would hear for an unexplainably long amount of time. That Marsalis and ensemble made each note count is a dull way to put it; a better way is to relay the observation that during the second half's "Fugue: Poco apressado" of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras no. 9, the last row of the first violins brandished genuine smiles of delight at each other during one of the piece's final lyrical moments. As an audience, we smiled along with them.
Branford Beyond Compare
Marsalis' playing was dynamic. Featured as a soloist in most of the selections, Marsalis was at times crisp and confident, with motorlike virtuosity, but more often he was elegant and enchanting, with a sincere, round tone. During Villa-Lobos' Fantasia for Saxophone, Marsalis gingerly traversed the range of his soprano saxophone, in the sweeping runs so customary of the fantasia, with an ease that provoked something in between awe and envy.

Philarmonia Brasileira, an ensemble based in Brazil, and currently taking this program, with Branford Marsalis, to 28 concert halls around the U.S., was consummate in exhibiting the very best attributes of a moderate-sized ensemble in performance. The interaction evident on stage was intimate as well as sensitive, which no doubt contributed to the cool dispositions of both the featured soloist and the conductor.

Cellist Ji Shim answered beautifully Marsalis' lofty statement of the melody in the adagio "Aria (Cantilena)" of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 — the Brazilian composer's ode to both Bach and the music of his own native country — as the ensemble was reduced to a strummed lute. In Milhaud's Scaramouche, pianist Heloisa Pinto accompanied Marsalis brilliantly in the vertiginous "Vif," and percussionist Vinicius Barros assumed a leading role in "Brazileira," wielding the pandeiro drum and placing it in its rightful place for a movement of this name: at the center of the ensemble.

Perhaps even more impressive was the veracity of the cliche regularly attached to Marsalis: that he is competent within all genres — a simple fact that does nothing if not reinforce what musicians of his caliber have been reminding us of since time immemorial, which is that, in a sense, music is music. To further reduce this self-evident idea to a bald one-liner, Marsalis demonstrated that artistry and genius supersede categorical bounds.

Kwami Coleman is a Ph.D. student in musicology at Stanford, with a concentration in jazz history. He was formerly an artist's liaison with Jazz at Lincoln Center.