Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto; Fiddle Dance Suite

Nicola Benedetti / Cristian Măcelaru / Philadelphia Orchestra

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Wynton Marsalis: Violin Concerto; Fiddle Dance Suite Review

by James Manheim

Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' first forays into classical music in the 1980s were celebrated as some kind of unique breakthrough, but that overlooked the fact that Marsalis was classically trained at the Juilliard School, absorbed all kinds of traditions, and has always had aspirations in the classical sphere. Credit Marsalis with broad ambitions when he turns to classical composition, as in his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio Blood on the Fields (1997), and again here with a Violin Concerto and Fiddle Dance Suite, written for violinist Nicola Benedetti. Both works are impressive, not least in their idiomatic writing for the violin; they flatter Benedetti considerably. The Violin Concerto is in some respects the concerto for the instrument that Charles Ives never wrote. Not only are there polystylistic march passages that sound a great deal like Ives, but Marsalis draws on the early 20th century American in other respects. Sample the third-movement "Blues," which in addition to that style broadens out into a sort of gospel church service. This is something Ives would have loved. Moreover, there is the range of styles in the work: jazz and blues are present, but only as one element of a palette. The final "Hootenanny" picks up where Copland left off in terms of old-time country music. Marsalis sticks with traditional styles, more Scottish than American, in the Fiddle Dance Suite that rounds out the album. Leave aside the novelty of an African American composer writing a movement called "Nicola's Strathspey" and just enjoy the original harmonic universe Marsalis spins out of this dance. The Philadelphia Orchestra, not much heard on recordings in recent years, sounds great under conductor Cristian Măcelaru, and all in all this is a strong outing on the classical side from Marsalis, and a productive stretch for Benedetti as well.

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