Swing into Spring
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra & Rodger Fox Big Band
Saturday 3 September 2016, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington
A personal opinion from Stephen Gibbs
Hamish McKeich, conductor
Rodger Fox, conductor
Allen Vizzutti, guest soloist: trumpet/flügelhorn
1: North to the Apricots – John Rae
2: The Red Zone – (commissioned by the Rodger Fox Big Band) – Matt Harris
3: Wandering Eye – Fat Freddy’s Drop – arr. Jesper Riis
4: Matakana – Nick Granville
5: The Meaning of the Blues – Bobby Troup – arr. Bill Stapleton & Jeff Driskill
6: West Side Story Suite – Leonard Bernstein – arr. Paul McDonald
7: Take the A Train – Billy Strayhorn (for Duke Ellington) – arr. Allen Vizzutti
8: Touch – Allen Vizzutti
9: Glide – Allen Vizzutti
10: Oblivion – Astor Piazolla – arr. Allen Vizzutti
11: Fire Dance – Allen Vizzutti & Jeff Tyzik
Encore: A Night in Tunisia – Dizzy Gillespie – arr. Jeff Tyzik
Even the title revealed the Jazz influence in this concert: Swing Into Spring. The alliteration and the punning-wordplay are hallmarks of Jazz sensibilities.
For those who have not seen the concert a word (or three sentences) of caution:
1: the concert is played with no interval – 100 minutes long,
2: for the classicalists: it is okay to clap the soloists during the pieces, not waiting to the end,
3: the programme notes are not ‘ordered’. There is information about 14 pieces, but the order is scattered and not all of them were played in our concert.
[For example, the programme notes had A Night in Tunisia at the first piece. I was looking out (or hearing out) for the familiar tune but it seemed to be obscured: the statement of the theme …and the three soloists form the big band … and the coda … I thought I was crazy. But after the piece Rodger Fox revealed that it was actually the sixth piece on the programme notes – local composer John Rae’s North to the Apricots. What a relief for my sanity!]
Certainly the NZSO let their hair down (and for cellist Annemarie Meijers that is something!) Several of the classical musicians were inspired to groove along with the music – again, the cellists Andrew Joyce and David Chickering were clearly enjoying themselves. Several of the brass players – trombone and trumpet – were seconded to the big band too. A hybrid-mix.
The conductor’s style revealed themselves early on. Hamish McKeich was a ‘freestyle conductor’ – in fact, with the Olympics in mind, his symmetrical arm movements were reminiscent of swimming: breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke, even freestyle! Rodger Fox had his trademark left knee wobble and right foot shuffle and, even as a soloist, his trombone resembled a elongated baton! By the way, Rodger’s solos were characteristically exceptional as befitting the iconic NZ jazzman.
The ‘dis-ordered’ programme was constructed with a nice ebb and flow to the pieces – tension and release, muscle and massage. The soloists from the big band were very impressive particularly the fine playing by trumpeter Ben Hunt. He played with all sorts of tonal shades: melancholy, robust, or outspoken. I was puzzled that drum-kit player, Lauren Ellis, was left in the middle of the stage when her percussive compatriots were in the back row as normal. But, particularly in the first half, she was the thread that brought the ensembles together: changes in tempo, mood, and rhythm motifs. She was outstanding.
Midway through, Rodger Fox introduced Allen Vizzutti. He was a supreme soloist. His trumpet was crystalline, a diamond-like sound and his flügelhorn was mellow, sombre and resonant. His range was incredible, with double and triple tonguing, breath control and with alternate fingering that altered the pitch microtonally. It seemed to be effortless.
Allen and Rodger are consummate showmen, with amusing asides and totally relaxed with the audience. But, in the Michael Fowler Centre, Rodger’s microphone asides during the pieces were muffled and difficult to hear.
In Jazz, often the players arrange or compose the pieces for the concert. The Big Band guitar player, Nick Granville, composed the fourth piece on the programme: Matakana. It was a straight forward and short piece but his technique in string writing and orchestration was exemplary. I think it could be extended. In the second half when Allen Vizzutti took to the stage, all of the pieces were composed or arranged by him. They were excellent pieces and they made most of the ensembles strengths – the symphony orchestra and the big band.
It would be churlish to feature some of the pieces and not the others, but this is a review, so….
- Glide – the angular riffs tested both ensembles equally. Exciting!
- The Red Zone – a major commissioned piece for the combined resources. Impressive.
- Fire Dance – breathless and apprehensive and not in a good way. It was a ‘show-off’ piece, an exercise, like a Paganini violin piece, or a coloratura aria. It was extraordinary but not aesthetically/musically pleasing.
- Matakana and North to the Apricots were excellent – local flavour that were ‘up to the mark’.
- Take the A Train and the A Night in Tunisia : The latter was never a encore! If the audience were silent they would have played this piece anyway I suspect – but that was never going to happen! These standard pieces on the jazz repertoire were superbly played, with the arrangements making the most of each ensemble and the soloists. Bravo.
But my favourite piece of the night was the West Side Story Suite. I have heard this music before in all sorts of way: the musical pit band, piano arrangement, brass bands, big bands or concert bands, orchestras … but with this arrangement, with the NZSO and Rodger Fox Big Band, it was superb. The arrangement complemented the ensembles equally and it was much better than each could do on their own.
The verdict: the combination of the symphony orchestra and the big band was very successful, because the compositions and arrangements made the best of each of the ensembles equally. Sure, the strings have lots of semibreves, the brass and the horns (saxes, not french horns) had lots of syncopated ‘hits’, the form of the ‘songs’ were standard, but it was not film music, or a cloned, formulaic copy. It was much more than that. Entertaining, captivating, impressive.