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Markham joins ASO for eclectic program

By Arlene Bachanov
Daily Telegram Special Writer | November 10. 2013 1:00PM

“This is us” is how Adrian Symphony Orchestra Music Director John Thomas Dodson chose to describe the works on Friday’s ASO concert program. It was quite an apt term.

Titled appropriately enough “Rhapsody and Rags,” the concert showcased what was foundational in American music — spirituals and hymnody, ragtime, jazz and classical works that brought jazz ideas into the concert halls. It is indeed the musical story of “us,” something Dodson explored in a narration that discussed the interconnectedness of all these forms and how each laid the foundation for the next.

Whether or not a certain amount of narration is right or not for a concert is a matter of personal taste. The fact remains that a program this varied needed a thread woven through it to bring it all together. Plus, the more opportunities people have to learn about what they’re hearing, the more approachable the music is.

This concert was quite unlike anything that’s ever been done by the ASO, and actually not much like anything most orchestras anywhere would do. It was one of those programs, in fact, that the ASO tends to do on occasion: create a concert experience here in Adrian that would have been right at home in a venue in, say, New York City.

Put a piece by Charles Mingus into a symphony orchestra concert? Bring in guest artist Mark Markham and ask him not only to play one of the great early 20th century American pieces but also to just sit at the piano and improvise? Combine all that with Scott Joplin rags and a classical work that’s a French composer’s take on American jazz, and you have quite the eclectic concert, and yet it all fit together perfectly.

As unique as the program itself was, the emotional ebb and flow of its structure was pretty unique too. For example, a jaunty, toe-tapping set of Joplin rags was followed by the orchestra vacating the stage — people would have been forgiven for thinking it was intermission, except that the house lights didn’t go up — to leave, literally alone in the spotlight, just Markham and a grand piano.

The result of that? A hauntingly beautiful improvisation on a set of American hymns and spirituals that took the audience into intermission in a very different frame of mind than if they’d been left with the (mostly) peppy ragtime tunes. And when Markham’s second opportunity to show off his considerable improvisational talents came later on, it produced a version of the Duke Ellington classic “Solitude” that was breathtakingly lovely.

Friday’s concert began with Milhaud’s “The Creation of the World,” which was written after the composer became infatuated with American jazz and went back to France with recordings of it.

He certainly tossed seemingly a little bit of everything into the mix, the result being a highly creative and really unusual composition. And with the improv work required of the orchestra, it definitely offers no small challenge. Some people in Friday’s undoubtedly loved this piece, others not so much, but the ASO’s musicians did some pretty heroic and creative work with it and it came off very well indeed.

And, after making its way through all this plus a really well-done rendition of the “Soul Fusion” movement of Mingus’ seminal “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” — along with a recording Dodson made of a very enlightening interview with Mingus’ widow, Sue — the ASO arrived at the perfect ending for a concert like this, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

If you’ve never heard the Paul Whiteman version of this work, and odds are you haven’t, you’re in for quite a surprise when you hear it that way, as Friday’s audience did. It’s orchestrated for a smaller orchestra of strings, brass, woodwinds including saxophone and clarinet, piano, percussion and, of all things, banjo, and the result is revelatory.

In much the same way as something like the chamber version of “Appalachian Spring” takes that work down to its very essence compared to the full-orchestra version, this “Rhapsody in Blue” is in a sense cleaner, barer and more elemental. And the ASO and Dodson gave it a terrific reading that was made all the better by Markham’s spectacular work at the piano.

To be equally at home, on the same program no less, with classical works, jazz standards and improvisation, takes a musician of top-notch skills, and Markham definitely delivered the goods on all counts. And by any measure, Friday’s concert was one that will stand out for a very long time for its quality, its breadth and its creativity.

The Daily Telegram