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Spokane Symphony Masterworks series takes a jazzy turn

Friday Feb 28, 2020 • Features • Spokesman Review

By Stephanie Hammett
If you go

‘Masterworks 7: Appalachian Spring’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, 1001 W. Sprague Ave.

More: $21-$66; spokanesymphony.org or (509) 624-1200

This weekend the Spokane Symphony will present “Appalachian Spring,” the next in this season’s Masterworks concert series.

Like the first Masterworks concert of the season, the program will only feature the work of American composers, including Philip Glass’ “Anniversary Concert Overture,” George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Leonard Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” and Aaron Copland’s clarinet concerto, as well as his “Suite From Appalachian Spring.”

The concerto and Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” will feature guest soloist Stephen Williamson, the principal clarinet for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“The Copland concerto is one of those rare pieces. It has this beautiful sort of mélange between the classical world and the jazz world,” Williamson said. “The Bernstein is clearly jazz, but the Copland starts off reminding me of Appalachian Spring, then turns on its head into this swinging jazz number.”

Williamson has performed the Copland clarinet concerto many times but never the Bernstein piece.

“Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” can be something of a tall order for your average symphony orchestra as its big band, jazzy style requires a particular approach.

“The style is so important; it’s not something that’s … accessible to most symphonic orchestras,” Williamson said. The original version, which the symphony is set to perform this weekend, was arranged for a proper jazz ensemble and calls for a host of saxophones, trumpet players comfortable with jazz, trombones, a great jazz pianist and, of course, a clarinet.

In a 1955 video recording, Bernstein said, “I hope you will feel in it some of the special beauty of jazz that I felt when I was writing the piece, and I hope that our investigation of jazz today will help you to see a little more clearly why I think of this piece as a serious piece of American music.”

The piece might sound improvised, but, in fact, it’s meticulously written out.

“I remember hearing it for the first time and thinking it was the most incredible improvisatory jam session I’d ever heard,” Williamson said. “In jazz, if you don’t really understand how to swing, it can sound horrible. So it’s really important to know what to do stylistically even with all the notes in front of you.”

Originally written for Woody Herman, the piece was abruptly shelved when his ensemble disbanded. But, some years later, Bernstein revisited the piece and premiered it with the help of legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman, to whom the piece also was dedicated.

“Thank goodness it came back – it’s such a fun piece to play,” Williamson said. “And for the audience, you can’t help but get into it. It just gets inside you. Especially the ending.”

A favorite among composers of the time, Goodman had many pieces written for him, including Copland’s clarinet concerto. Williamson vividly remembers hearing a Goodman recording of the concerto as a sixth-grader. He was in love from the first phrase.

“The Copland was really the first concerto that I felt spoke to me. I’ve always been in love with the piece,” Williamson said. “And it’s all because of Benny Goodman.”

Resident conductor Morihiko Nakahara also is particularly looking forward to the concerto.

“As someone who was originally trained as a clarinetist myself, the Copland has always been one of my favorites,” Nakahara said. “It’s always fun to conduct. With the Gershwin and the Bernstein … this is a great program.”

 

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