Twenty or so years ago, when he was in his 40s, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and saxophone titan Branford Marsalis returned to classical repertoire in a serious, studious way for the first time since his high school days.
“I was terrible,” he told the News&Guide last week, speaking from Pittsburgh, where he was consulting on a film project about blues maven Ma Rainey. “It took about eight or nine years until I stopped being terrible. It’s hard. It requires a lot of work.”
Which is exactly why he did it.
“I could see the slippery slope in front of me,” he said. “Once you start developing a reputation, the impetus for practicing is gone. You know what you do well, and you stop practicing or you stop growing. You’re practicing the same things you already know how to do. I needed something to shake me, to kick the s--- out of me. And it did.”
It made him a much better all-around saxophonist and musician, he said, and it introduced him to a lot of professional classical players.
“They found out I knew how bad it was, and once they heard that they offered to help me,” he said. “A lot of the greatest players have been helpful to me. It’s been a great journey.”
Marsalis journeys to Jackson Hole this week to perform Alexander Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto of 1935 with the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra, part of a short westward jaunt that also includes stops in Sun Valley, Idaho, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for both classical performances and sets with his long-standing jazz quartet.
Glazunov (1865-1935) was a Russian prodigy, a prolific composer, a major turn-of-the-century musical force and a revered teacher who directed the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and counted Dmitri Shostakovich among his students.
“If you’re into classical music, you know him,” Marsalis said of the composer. “Glazunov wasn’t Beethoven, he wasn’t Mozart, he wasn’t Stravinsky, but he was a highly skilled composer.”
Glazunov wrote for piano, chorus, chamber ensembles and the stage, and he produced a huge amount of orchestral work, including eight completed symphonies, which in particular impressed Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who became the composer’s mentor and champion when he was still just a teenager. By the 1890s, Glazunov was internationally famous. He maintained a busy conducting schedule, Cambridge and Oxford universities awarded him honorary doctorates, and his work was performed all over Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Then, in the 1920s, he emigrated to France, ostensibly for “health” reasons but likely to escape the oppressive Bolshevik regime, and in Paris, his fortunes turned.
“The Parisians thought they already had their Russian composer in Stravinsky,” as Marsalis told it. “There was no room for two. It was hard for him to get work.”
Glazunov, did, however, land one plum gig when the Danish saxophonist Sigurd Raschèr, having heard his 1932 Saxophone Quartet, asked him to write a concerto. Glazunov obliged with his penultimate work, the beautiful, lyrical, highly technical Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra in E-flat Major.
“It’s very romantic,” Marsalis said of the piece, “and melancholy, as Russian music often is.”
Consistent with Glazunov’s late romantic tendencies, it shows no signs of being influenced by the jazz music that had swept across the Atlantic to infect nearly every aspect of Parisian life. Nor does it have a scrap of the dissonance and savage rhythm characteristic of the work of the toast of Paris, Stravinsky. Which should make its pairing with the arch modernist’s “The Rite of Spring” on the weekend Grand Teton Music Festival programs particularly pregnant with possibilities.
The story of the Paris premiere of “Rite” is well known: Commissioned by impresario Serge Diaghilev for his Ballet Russes, the May 29, 1913, performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was met with jeers, shouts, fisticuffs and acerbic reviews (although accounts of an all-out “riot” have been largely debunked). But even better known is the piece itself, which for more than 100 years now has shocked and awed audiences, cracking open their sense of what music can be and serving as a first contact with the polyrhythmic and polytonal features of 20th-century music.
Selections from Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” will open the evening. They were originally written as incidental music for a play of the same name by Henrik Ibsen (which, in turn, was based on a Norwegian fairy tale). Grieg later developed eight themes for two orchestral suites, published in 1888 and 1891. With their evocation of the landscapes and mythical creatures of ancient Norway, melodies from “Peer Gynt” are among Grieg’s most famous works and, indeed, among the most recognized in classical music. ￼