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Marsalis' 'All Rise' -- a celebration
Jazz and symphony orchestras, chorus combine to weave a rich tapestry
Jesse Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, November 17, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.
Wynton Marsalis' "All Rise" is a huge 100-minute work for jazz orchestra, symphony orchestra and chorus that, in his words, "celebrates togetherness and ascendance."
It does so in a rich musical language that encompasses blues and marches and Middle Eastern melody, Greek modes, African rhythms and Beethovenian textures, fiddler's reels, fugues, samba, gospel and Stravinsky, New Orleans jazz and American popular song.
"I don't try to combine all these different styles and elements," says Marsalis, 39. "They're already combined. I try to hear that they're the same thing. They're linked, like human beings are linked."
This week at Davies Hall, the combined forces of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which is led by the celebrated trumpeter, and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus will perform "All Rise," conducted by Steven Sloane in his Symphony debut.
The 12-movement work, whose structure is based on the 12-bar blues, was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center. When the Philharmonic's conductor Kurt Masur proposed the idea to him a decade ago, "I thought he was joking," Marsalis says on the phone from Honolulu, where the Lincoln Center band was playing after an Asian tour.
"I had never written any classical music. I play classical music, but there's a huge difference between playing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto and writing a piece for symphonic orchestra. Then I saw him (several years) later and he said, 'Are you still scared to write for orchestra?' Then it dawned on me: He wasn't joking."
Marsalis was already writing for his small ensembles and for the Lincoln Center orchestra, whose formulation in 1992 allowed him to compose and orchestrate for many voices, as well as hear and play the rich music of Duke Ellington.
"When I heard Duke's music, I could tell he had a panoramic understanding of American life, of vernacular music. He had so much in his music," says Marsalis, who's still seeking to "develop the ability to express what I know and what I feel."
He experimented with orchestration and counterpoint while writing ballet music for Twyla Tharp, Garth Fagan and the New York City Ballet in the mid- '90s, with "All Rise" in the back of his mind. His oratorio about slavery, "Blood on the Fields," won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1997.
Marsalis learned to write for strings while composing the string quartet "At the Octoroon Balls" in 1995 for Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society, for which he also wrote "A Fiddler's Tale," inspired by Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale."
In addition to that practical experience, he studied constantly, he says, "listening to recordings, studying scores, trying to figure out what would work where." He listened to Stravinsky, Sibelius, Ravel, Bartok and Basie, among others.
"It's important to know what things have been done, so you know what the instrument is capable of," says Marsalis, who premiered this work in 1999 at New York's Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir.
It's divided into three sections of four movements each. The first, which Marsalis calls "joyous," deals with birth and self-discovery. The second, darker and "poignant," concerns "mistakes, pain, sacrifice and redemption." Joy returns in the dancing final movements, which shift from mambos and milongas to the sounds of trains, from slow sexy blues to great waves of gospel-churchy sound.
Marsalis never questioned whether all of these musical styles, performed by three large and distinct ensembles, would fit. It was a question of how. "The hardest part was to figure out what would work from a technical standpoint," says the composer, who was concerned with "weights and balances," like whether the jazz band would drown out the woodwinds, or a certain passage worked for strings, or the orchestration was too thick.
.5 "I knew intellectually, musically, philosophically and spiritually that it would work, that it all goes together. It takes tremendous energy to make it be apart. It's like with people. I noticed when I grew up in the South, with such racism, how similar the black people and the rednecks actually were - - eating the same food, talking the same basic language, dealing with the same oppressive forces. But the energy expended to make it be not what it was was unbelievable."
He talks about the links among marches and New Orleans music and ragtime, how "the 2/4 march is related to the fiddler's reel, and the fiddler's reel is related to ragtime and to Bach's music. It's also Irish music, which I relate to the spiritual. I was listening to Chinese opera the other day in Taiwan, and it was a trip how much that sounded like fiddle music."
The only 4/4 swing heard in this piece is played by the jazz band. (There are improvised solos in every movement.) Marsalis figured it would be impossible for 200 musicians, most untrained in jazz, to really swing. He focused on rhythms "we can all play. We all know marches, waltzes, the sound of ragtime, vamps and grooves."
"All Rise" has its religious aspects, but "it's not preaching 'Come together, everyone,' " Marsalis says. "It's saying, 'We are together.' "
WYNTON MARSALISThe musician-composer performs "All Rise" with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday at Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets: $20-$90. (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org.
E-mail Jesse Hamlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle. Page 15