Detroit symphony takes the A-Train to success at first series concert in new center

Lawrence B. Johnson
Detroit News Music Critic—18 October 2003

Now that’s the way to rededicate an American concert hall to its purpose in the continuum of classical music.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s subscription concert Thursday night at Orchestra Hall, its first since the opening of the Max M. Fisher Music Center, was a thoroughly American affair with a distinctively Detroit twist.

Indeed, the evening delivered all the things one hopes to experience in a symphony orchestra concert — not in 1803, when Beethoven was a rising star, or in 1903, when Mahler and Strauss ruled, but in 2003 in the heartland of America and American culture.

Brilliant, fresh, stimulating, utterly unconventional in every way, the program devised by music director Neeme Jarvi offered three works commissioned during the last decade by the DSO — with all three composers on hand — and an urban tone poem by one of this country’s greatest composers, Duke Ellington.

That said, the concert opened in rather pedestrian fashion with the premiere of Michael Daugherty’s dedicatory “Raise the Roof.”

Faculty composer at the University of Michigan and a former DSO resident composer, Daugherty is a gifted American original who has turned out a long string of imaginative and engaging works inspired by icons as diverse as Liberace and Rosa Parks.

But it was hard to find the inspiration in “Raise the Roof,” which for all its vibrant colors and rhythmic energy never evolved beyond the simplistic character of a spaghetti western movie soundtrack.

One listened in vain for the typical counterpoint, the subtle textural layering, the edgy wit that have stamped Daugherty as one of the most important composers of our time and place.

Those, however, were the very qualities that abounded in the Concerto for Orchestra by Leslie Bassett, a grey eminence of the U. of M. music faculty and winner of a Pulitzer Prize.

Like Bartok’s famous Concerto for Orchestra, Bassett’s puts each section of the orchestra through formidable technical hoops while enchanting the ear with complex rhythms and delicately shifting colors.

Jarvi guided a dazzling display of virtuosity that peaked in eloquent solo turns by English horn, bass clarinet, flute, cello and violin.

Reprising a huge popular success from last season, Jarvi put a Motown spin on the night with Roberto Sierra’s jazzy Concerto for Saxophones, featuring — no, starring — the young jazzlion and Detroit native James Carter on both tenor and soprano sax.

And once again, Carter’s flamboyant turn through the concerto’s impulsive syncopations stood the house on its ear. Crowning the concert was the evocative cityscape, where jazz meets gospel, of Ellington’s “Harlem Suite.”

When Jarvi added a high-powered encore of the Duke’s “Take the A-Train,” who should wander onto the stage, in midperformance, but James Carter, wailing that indelible tune on his soprano sax.

The crowd, this Motown crowd, went wild.

Whether he’s playing tenor or soprano sax, shows off a sweet, sinuous tone; when he reinterprets Reinhardt’s classic Nuages with a bass sax, the muscular sound is distancing at first, but then it wraps itself around the listener like an anaconda.
-Christopher John Farley, TIME

There were passages in the program, especially during pieces such as Joe Henderson’s “Recorda Me,” in which Carter played with a surprisingly soft and tender sound, his improvisations filled with subtle melodic paraphrases. At other times, he added an appealing, burry edge to his tone—the result calling up images, on soprano saxophone, of Sidney Bechet.