So many great gadgets provide us with music today. Everything from iPads to gas pumps at Walmart. Occasionally we forget that one of the original giver-of-music gadgets is still around and perhaps still the greatest of them all: the concert hall. Saturday night, March 10, the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas under the direction of Paul Haas and the Fayetteville Jazz Collective reminded their audience that a great live concert hall performance is one of life’s most joyous occasion.
During the pre-concert discussion the much used Duke Ellington quote ("There are just two kinds of music; good music and that other kind") set the stage for the concert that would follow. The innovative "250 Years of Greatest Hits" programing switched back and forth in a sort of battle format with friendly fire selections coming from the classical orchestra and the classic big-band and occasionally both at the same time.
Without segue and very little discussion from the podium, some musical "switches" worked better than others but since both ensembles performed with passion and skill, title or genre placement didn't seem to matter much once the music restarted.
Although audience favor seemed to be easily won with any selection involving horns (i.e. SoNA's brilliant "Fanfare," rousing "Firebird" finale and everything the horn-rich Collective played) it was the SoNA string drenched choices that gave the programing balance and provided some of the orchestra's finest moments.
SoNA's Mozart intermission curtain-closer followed the Collective's stellar "El Lobo Cuarenta" and the SoNA Elgar, near the program's end, followed the Collective's knock-your-socks-off "Sing,Sing,Sing." Tough acts to follow. However, SoNA under Haas's direction, repeated re-established itself and reclaimed the stage.
Woody Allen wrote that Mozart's 41st symphony, the Jupiter, is one of the reasons life is worth living and it was evident that the Walton Arts Center audience, after hearing the Jupiter's Molto Allegro, was in agreement with Mr. Allen.
It is a bittersweet Mozartian footnote to remember that he had hit rock bottom when he wrote his Symphony No.41 (along with two other symphonies during a six weeks period). He was broke, getting deeper in debt and borrowing money from friends. His infant daughter had just died, the Austrian economy was strained due to war and Mozart at age 31 was no longer the darling of Vienna that he once was.
In what must have been extreme despair Mozart created a symphonic masterwork so grand, with a finale so astonishing, that his 41st would soon be given the name: "Jupiter," King of the Gods.
Jupiter's coda, a mind-boggling five theme contrapuntal work of art, is one of the great symphonic money-shots and a litmus test of orchestral/conductor chops and listener savvy. The Jupiter coda is there to dazzle and challenge both the audience and the orchestra but mostly it is there to dazzle. Saturday night at Walton Arts Center Haas and SoNA, with intense and elegant bravura, dazzled. They also proved once again that Woody Allen was right.
The Fayettville Jazz Collective's love and respect for "In the Mood" was evident from the ascending first bar. No doubt the audience instantly recognized the iconic work from recordings and films but Saturday night they were reminded of the excitement that a live "In the Mood" experience brings.
Few tunes in history are as connected to a time and place and frame of mind as "In the Mood." With affection and skill and passionate historical accuracy, the Collective conjured up musical time-travel so powerful that avoiding being swept away was not an option. The audience was transported to pre-World War II U.S.A. where nostalgia dictates feelings of an era's good times.
It is interesting to note that the "In the Mood" that wowed the WAC audience Saturday night was a 10 year over-night-success story. Nine years before Miller's struck #1 gold with "Mood" Wingy Manone recorded it as "Tar Paper Stomp." Then Fletcher Henderson recorded it as "Hot and Anxious." Then TinPan Alley songster Joe Garland rearranged "Hot and Anxious" and cooled the song title down to "In the Mood." Then Artie Shaw's band played "In the Mood" but at 8 minutes, 5 minutes too long for 78 records, it was not recorded.
Then Glenn Miller's crafty editing skills got "Mood" down to the 3 minutes that would fit on one side of a 78 recording. The rest is history. In a career filled with sensational hits "In the Mood" was Glenn Miller's most sensational and thanks to the Collective, in an evening filed with sensational performances, "In the Mood" was one of the more sensational performances.
The "Greatest Hits" programing was (almost) exclusively high octane. Even an audience favorite like the Copland "Fanfare" might be considered high octane adagio. So, Elgar's "Nimrod" placed near the end of the program appeared to be much deserved audience rest stop.
But SoNA's "Nimrod" did not offer the WAC audience rest. The "Nimrod" performance was intensely poignant and its sweeping lines were so graceful in their slow-motion heaviness that by the time the variation came to its sudden halt, the audience was wonderfully exhausted.
Just as Mozart's 41st was created in despairing times, so was Sir Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" as he desperately struggled for acceptance as an international composer. Elgar wrote the 14 "Variations" to "picture" 14 friends. It is no surprise that the somber Enigma “Nimrod” picture is of Elgar's good friend and mentor August Jaeger ("Jaeger" is "hunter" in German and "Nimrod" was the "mighty hunter" in the book of Genesis).
The strength and consolation in "Nimrod" offers a revelation of strength and consolation that Elgar must have found in his mentor. It is no wonder that it is also one of Elgar's most popular works.
If "Nimrod" was the "250 Years" program entry for the best "cool down" number then "Sing, Sing, Sing" was the entry for the "hottest." Like "In the Mood" it is for ever associated with the best of the swing era gospel according to Benny Goodman, Louis Prima and Gene Krupa. Once again the Fayetteville Jazz Collective star continued to rise as it knocked "Sing" right out of the ball park...well, concert hall.
The concert was a joyous occasion filled with concert hall and dance hall gold. Many SoNA fans were introduced to the Fayetteville Jazz Collective and vice versa. And that was a good thing.
Also once again we were reminded what we have known all along. Duke Ellington was right.