Monday, February 14, 2011

Branford Marsalis Interview

Conductor Andrey Boreyko and saxophonist Branford Marsalis (photo by Chris Lee)

New York Philharmonic
with Branford Marsalis

February 16, 17, 18, 19, 2011

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

Even in a career studded with laurels, jazz-pop-classical-R&B saxophonist extraordinaire Branford Marsalis still hadn’t performed with the New York Philharmonic until last summer during a free Concerts in the Parks appearance last July in Central Park. And this week he will make his Avery Fisher Hall debut with the Philharmonic playing the same two works he played last summer: Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Erwin Schulhoff’s Hot Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra. Guest conductor Andrey Boreyko will also reprise his role from last summer on the podium.

From his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, Marsalis recently discussed performing with the Philharmonic, playing these two works, and music in general.

Kevin Filipski: How was your New York Philharmonic debut last summer?
Branford Marsalis: It was completely nerve-wracking because the New York Philharmonic is the New York Philharmonic! I remember when Wynton (Branford’s brother) debuted with them years ago, and he told me that he was more nervous than he’d ever been in his life. I can only imagine how the elder statesmen in the orchestra felt about seeing these upstarts onstage with them. But I had a great time: it’s one of the best orchestras I’ve ever heard, and performed with, in my life.

KF: Did you have any say in which pieces you are performing with the Philharmonic?
BM: I usually rely on artistic directors or conductors or management because every situation is different, and they have a better sense of their audience, especially when there’s the fact that to some in the audience you’re not a known name, and the sax is not a respected instrument in orchestral circles. Here, guest conductor Andrey Boreyko is a friend of mine, we had played the Glazunov concerto before, and he’s an unabashed advocate for Russian music, so he said let’s do the Glazunov and another piece by Schulhoff, Hot Sonata. I said, “Hmmm, I’m not really fond of the piece,” and he said, “Oh no, it’s great, but people don’t play it very well.” There are orchestrations of the Hot Sonata for two different ensembles: the wind ensemble was more unusual and therefore possibly cooler, and Andrey called it perfectly, since it is a great orchestration. A lot of the stuff in this piece is more effective in interpretation instead of playing it literally, where it tends to be less effective. When you identify different melodies to play with different emotions, it’s more effective. I wrote my own cadenza but other than that, we play it as written, but without adhering to the tempos. With the Schulhoff piece, I went from “It’s OK” to “Wow, it’s great!” very quickly.

KF: How familiar are you with classical works for saxophone?
BM: I was very familiar with the Glazunov, but less so with the Schulhoff. I don’t do many recitals, so there’s no opportunity to perform these works without orchestras. There are other good pieces, but they’re few and far between. One of those I played recently is Dutch composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis’s Tallahatchie concerto, which is a great piece. But it’s hard to get orchestras to play new pieces. They say, “Kid, you’re lucky you’re here, so play this.” I’ve also played works by Villa-Lobos, Ibert and Milhaud. I’m hoping to get a chance to play Tallahatchie more often, since it’s a really cool piece.

KF: You play a lot of different kinds of music. Do you like to keep the genres separate from one another, or do you just say that "music is music"?
BM: To me, classical should sound classical, and rock should sound like rock. Where jazz musicians get caught up is that jazz is so harmonically difficult and technically virtuosic that musicians hear music that’s only one chord and shrug and say, “I can do that.” But it’s not that simple! I grew up as an R&B player so I was able to come to music where it’s supposed to come from. I was raised on “simple” and graduated to “complex” sensibilities and it’s easier to make that transition to understand the beauty of the whole note. Because I listen to so much music I never had to develop different ways of playing. For me, music is a negotiation in sound.

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