Grant Llewellyn and Branford Marsalis
When looking at the lineup of guest performers in the North Carolina Symphony's benefit concert, entitled "Branford Marsalis and Friends," one might wonder how such a diverse group of musicians would create a unified concert. Indeed, this concert was a very eclectic mix of styles and repertoire, but each song selection made perfect sense. From Milhaud's jazz implications to folk music to jazz and blues, a spirit of collaboration among the musicians connected each song. Meymandi Concert Hall was full of anticipation as Grant Llewellyn conducted the NCS and this wonderful line up in a concert that was lighthearted, accessible, and enjoyable to a wide range of listeners.
After the symphony opened the concert with the crowd-pleasing Overture to Candide by Bernstein, Branford Marsalis made his introduction by playing a movement of Milhaud's Scaramouche, featuring fascinating textures intertwining saxophone and orchestra. For many residents of North Carolina and beyond, Marsalis needs no introduction – he has played with acclaimed jazz groups and orchestras around the United States, but is based in Durham with his Branford Marsalis Quartet. His clear, lyrical tone and poise onstage is instantly recognizable.
The Kruger Brothers took the stage next. This trio is an extremely unique folk/acoustic group originally from Switzerland and now residing in Wilkesboro, NC. Their original compositions, arranged by Jens Kruger to include the orchestra, featured both picturesque textures and infectious folk melodies. "Music From the Spring" is reminiscent of a rainstorm, with thunderous drums and intricate banjo ornamentations that sounded like the pattering of rain. It is impossible to ignore the virtuosity with which these musicians play their instruments. Rapid banjo and guitar patterns and countermelodies are essential to the Kruger Brothers' sound. Joined by Marsalis on the soprano sax, the Kruger Brothers played the classic "Fields of Gold," by Sting, making this a memorable collaboration.
In John Williams' "Joy Ride," from Escapades, Marsalis alternated quick abstract phrases with the orchestra, in tandem with percussionist Matt Decker on the vibraphone. It was fascinating to watch these two musicians play the same exact notes perfectly together on two vastly different instruments. After this, the concert transitioned to feature more jazz – Marsalis, along with Branford Marsalis Quartet pianist Joey Calderazzo, joined drummer Kobie Watkins and bassist Jason Foureman to form an excellent quartet. They played original compositions by Marsalis and Calderazzo – "The Bard Lachrimose" and "The Mighty Sword" respectively. Both of these pieces are quite complex, but these musicians played effortlessly both as soloists and together.
Rhiannon Giddens, known for both her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops as well as a solo artist, provided both operatic and soulful vocals in the next several songs. With Gershwin's classic "Summertime," her passionate voice in its higher range intertwined with Marsalis' saxophone phrases. "Tomorrow Is My Turn," made popular by Nina Simone, was an especially compelling and dramatic performance, with some dissonance between the vocal line and the orchestra. After two romantic and expressive French selections, all of the guest performers took the stage together for the final selection – the folk song "St. James Infirmary." A genius arrangement by Jens Kruger incorporated his acoustic ensemble, Marsalis' quartet, Gidden's unique vocals, and the symphony orchestra into one spectacular rendition of the original song. Through various renditions of the original melody, including humorous echoes of Beethoven from the orchestra, all of the musicians effortlessly communicated with one another to make music that must have included both written music and improvisation. In the end, it was a breathtaking display of the value in blending and appreciating different genres of music, and the audience leapt to their feet in response.