Wynton Marsalis Pens Concerto That Swings, Boogaloos — For Tuba!

JáTtik Clark was the soloist in Wynton Marsalis’ Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra with the Oregon Symphony. (Nash Co.)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon Symphony presented one of the rarest of works, a tuba concerto, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on April 30. Written by Wynton Marsalis, the Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra received a superb and incisive performance by JáTtik Clark, the Oregon Symphony’s principal tubist. Co-commissioned by a consortium that included the Oregon Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Houston Symphony, and Canada’s National Art Centre Orchestra, Marsalis completed the work in 2020. Carol Jantsch, principal tubist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, gave its world premiere in December, and Clark, in a series of concerts under music director David Danzmayr, delivered the West Coast premiere.

Clark joined the orchestra as its principal tubist in 1999 at the age of 23 after receiving his master’s degree in performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Since that time, he has performed with the Chicago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Seattle, and Grant Park orchestras. Clark is also the principal tuba of the Grand Teton Festival Orchestra and is a member of the Rose City Brass Quintet, which recently released its first album, Disquiet.

Wynton Marsalis’ Tuba Concerto was co-commissioned by a consortium of orchestras. (Luigi Beverelli)

Marsalis, the internationally acclaimed trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has won nine Grammys that span the jazz and classical genres. In 1997 he received the Pulitzer Prize in music for his oratorio Blood on the Fields. Among his more recent large-scale works are the Swing Symphony and his Violin Concerto.

The Tuba Concerto kicked off with an energizing movement titled “Up!” It offered exposed passages in which Clark sang through his mouthpiece while playing at the same time, achieving a unique kind of Tuvan throat sound for the tuba. After a short orchestral fanfare-like section faded away, the tuba established a melodic line that shifted about restlessly. Rhythmic hand-clapping from various parts of the orchestra gave way to a choo-choo propulsive segment and pronounced syncopation from the percussion down the home stretch with the tuba making a statement with all sorts of exuberant licks.

Next came a playful “Boogaloo Americana” movement that featured a meandering theme for Clark against a heavier rhythmic line augmented at times by hand clapping from his colleagues. Low, raspy blasts from the tuba transitioned into a loosey-goosey flow that seemed to put some head-bobbing listeners into a trance.

Music director David Danzmayr led the orchestra in a program that included Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9. (Jason Quigley)

In “Lament,” Clark offered brief melodic phrases that were augmented by leisurely upward runs. That morphed into a march-like passage that was gradually taken over by the orchestra. The tuba then led to a hymn-like section before letting out a sustained, yet somewhat subdued, wail.

The final movement, “In Bird’s Basement,” bounced along quickly with Clark playing a blur of notes that suggested a rolling aria. The orchestra supported him in a big-band, show-tune style with swift, punchy accents. The piece ended with the tuba going into the depths and getting the last laugh in a quick, exposed riff. But it came across oddly as a nonchalant afterthought.

The audience, which had warmly applauded each movement, broke out enthusiastically with a standing ovation. The bravos and cheers brought Clark back to center stage twice. 

The Oregon Symphony in a dress rehearsal at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. (Jason Quigley)

In 1960, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn arranged five movements from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker into a suite for big band. Then in 1998, Jeff Tyzik, the triple-threat pops trumpeter, conductor, and composer, orchestrated their arrangement, spreading the fun across the entire stage. Under Danzmayr, that hip version of The Nutcracker Suite had plenty of zing and swing with the woodwinds, brass, and percussion leading the way. 

The wah-wah sounds from trombones and trumpets in the Overture loosened things right away.  Next came a peppery “Toot Toot Tootie Toot” (Dance of the Reed Pipes) and a “Dance of the Floreadores” that was topped with swagger from a row of raised horns. Curvaceous lines from the saxophone created a lush “Sugar Rum Cherry” (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy), and many individual instrumentalists got their licks in on the “Peanut Brittle Brigade” (March), which culminated in a snappy ending.

Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) has cemented its stature as one of the most beloved in the orchestral repertoire. Influenced by Native American melodies and African-American spirituals, Dvořák showed how to create an American sound that no one before him had done, and that innovative spirit connected aptly with Marsalis’ Tuba Concerto.

Of course, with a piece as familiar as the New World Symphony, the challenge for the conductor and orchestra is to perform it in a way that is true to the composer’s intentions and still make it fresh. Danzmayr showed a thorough understanding of the piece, emphasizing its dynamic contrasts and shaping its thematic material with panache. At the end, bravos rang out from all corners of the hall, and Danzmayr made sure to recognize the many stellar contributions from the musicians that made the performance a memorable experience.