Ljubljana, the charming capital of Slovenia, has its own state opera, ballet and philharmonic orchestra, radio chorus and orchestra, much like those which exist in major Turkish cities.
The Slovenian Philharmonic Orchestra, under its chief conductor Emmanuel Villaume, offers an expansive season with a wide range of music and composers, and international soloists. They use two venues, one built in the 1700s and the other in the 1970s. I attended a concert in the freshly painted old concert hall featuring the Philharmonic’s brass and percussion players and American trumpeter Allen Vizzutti on Feb. 26.
This program, without a conductor, spanned from the Renaissance to new works by Slovenian composers, and Vizzutti’s contributions gave a distinctly American flavor to the lineup with his jazz-inflected composition, “Five Episodes,” co-written with Jeff Tyzik. The classically trained Vizzutti’s easy-going personality on stage also reflected a long career in the jazz world with such names as Clark Terry, Chick Corea, Woody Herman, and Chuck Mangione.
The brass choir made a glorious sound in Gabrieli’s “Canzon,” a chorale from Bach’s Cantata No. 188, and Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” in the recently restored Baroque-era hall that retained its original paintings, ornate friezes and, most importantly, its perfect acoustics. Lojze Krajncan’s “The Hunt” exploited the French horns’ hunting calls in a clever setting that described the forest, chasing a bear and finally the sunset, with triumphant tones. John F. Kaefer’s percussion piece, “Thanatos za tolkala” (Death for percussion) was a driving, almost threatening composition with an explosive ending. Marko Mihevc’s “Trombadoro” was an entertaining piece that, although constructed in 5/4 rhythm, hinted amusingly at the polka. Khatchaturian’s popular “Sabre Dance,” arranged for brass and percussion, made the most out of the famous vibraphone and xylophone solos.
Vizzutti’s artistic performance in his “Five Episodes” was the centerpiece of five different moods from slow and sultry to dizzying calisthenics. The composers painted with tight chords and angular lines, using modern jazz modalities but within a classical format. For his encore, Vizzutti trotted out the classic virtuoso trumpet favorites, “Carnival in Venice” and “Funiculì, Funiculà,” in which he rotated the trumpet while playing, much to the delight of the children in the audience. The artist’s musical versatility served both genres with consummate skill and sparkling derring-do.
Borusan & Branford: 20th century gems
Aside from the celebrity of American saxophonist Branford Marsalis appearing here in a classical program with the Borusan Philharmonic, conducted by Sascha Goetzel, there was another cause célèbre, in my opinion, at the unusual concert at Lütfi Kırdar Concert Hall on Feb. 23.
The most familiar classical composer in the line-up was Sergei Prokofiev, with other, lesser-known works by film composer John Williams, Sally Beamish, and Erwin Schulhoff. The latter, a Czech whose music was banned by the Nazis and who perished in a German concentration camp in 1942, produced a unique body of work in his short life, and some of it was during his time as a prisoner. Two of his extraordinary compositions shared the spotlight with the soloist of the evening.
Marsalis, a jazz musician from a prominent New Orleans family of jazz musicians and who was the first bandleader on television’s “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, is another one of the few cross-genre musicians able to play as stunningly in classical repertoire as jazz. His formidable musicianship, wherein he executed many styles with suave über-control and tonal luster, took the stage not as a celebrity, but very much as a team player.
Williams’ “Escapades” is a delicious work that was used in the film “Catch Me If You Can.” It’s a concert-style jazz suite in which a trio of sax, vibraphone and bass are the stand-alone feature within the orchestra. The catchy first sequence had the orchestra players snapping their fingers to set up the swinging, if slightly comic, atmosphere for the scurrying melody. Joining Marsalis were percussionist Amy Salzgiver and bassist Onur Özkaya; especially stunning was Salzgiver’s unison groove with the Marsalis’ complicated jazz riffs.
The oldest composition of the 20th century repertoire this evening was Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite,” written for Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet in 1914. It’s a pulsating work with a huge orchestral spectrum that depicts the grotesque, and culminates in a cataclysmic tempest. Its intense description of demonic forces mirrors the shock value that Stravinsky’s iconic “The Rite of Spring” gave the general public in 1913. Under Goetzel’s direction, this work, which is so full of fascinating orchestral colors, comes radiantly alive.
Although the Prokofiev was a thriller, the composer whose work grabbed my attention this evening was Schulhoff. His “Ogelala Suite” from 1922 and “Hot-Sonate” from 1930 are very different from each other but equally riveting in their respective languages. The former, written also for ballet, uses 11 percussionists and a repetitive bass line to drive an escalating engine, resembling some of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos. The “Hot-Sonate” is a four-part suite, originally for saxophone and piano, that was arranged between 2002 and 2004 by Richard Rodney Bennett. Its jazz-tinged cabaret ambiance conjures the music of Kurt Weill and Bix Beiderbecke, but with a modernist twist. It takes us through the tantalizing toggle beats of Ragtime, Slow Drag and the Fox Trot of the late 1920s, explores the Blues, and at one point even quotes a theme from Franz Lehar’s “The Land of Smiles.” Though that might sound like an odd hodgepodge, the “Hot-Sonate” is a mesmerizing and ingenious composition that needs much more audience exposure. Borusan’s and Marsalis’ performance of it was a memorable experience.