MONTREAL — Bebop revivalist, classical virtuoso, educator, and music director, Wynton Marsalis could be called a man of many careers had he never written a note. Yet the American trumpeter is a prolific composer, often in an idiom that subtly combines the traditions of classical and jazz. The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and its principal trumpet, Paul Merkelo, made a positive case for Marsalis’ stylistically multilingual Trumpet Concerto in its Canadian debut Aug. 19 in the Maison symphonique.
Comprising six movements and lasting 35 minutes, the score scans as a suite rather than an organized concerto. Many are the references and evocations. The soloist gets things started with a brash fanfare — said by the composer to emulate an elephant call — and seldom steps back in a first movement animated by percussion and redolent less of the African outdoors than a busy American turnpike.
The following Ballad gives voice to Marsalis the melodist and confirmed admirer of Louis Armstrong. Oboe and tuba, neither noted as jazz instruments, make significant contributions. After a syncopated third movement of Latin inspiration, the self-descriptive Blues exploits muted sonorities to alluring effect. The waltzing (and ostensibly Gallic) fifth movement is quickly superseded by a wild finale brimming with ideas and atavistic sonorities that reminded this listener of The Rite of Spring. Or perhaps, as the composer would have it, “a circle dance groove from Jewish traditions of Eastern Europe.”
Amid this hubbub, Merkelo himself was required to be something of a one-man band, realizing various Marsalis-class technical feats, and without many bars of rest. To call the performance (recorded for release on osm.ca) an encyclopedia of trumpet playing is not much of an exaggeration. Merkelo used three instruments (swapping the C trumpet for a B-flat model in jazzy and/or Latin passages and a D trumpet for the concluding pyrotechnics) and five mutes (cup, straight, wa-wa, plunger, and old-fashioned hat). It would impossible to list all the admirable specifics. One striking plus was the gleaming quality of the high range. For all the virtues this trumpeter brings to his day job, he is a soloist at heart. OSM music director Rafael Payare was on the podium, eliciting the many colors and rhythms of the score without turning it into a free-for-all.
Merkelo is the third trumpeter to take on the piece — following Michael Sachs (in April with the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst) and Håkan Hardenberger (July with the Verbier Festival Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach) — and he’s booked to play it in Cape Town in 2024. One wonders how the concerto will fare on the wider circuit, given its length and technical demands. Perhaps a more manageable reduction would be advisable. A college dictionary, if you will, instead of an encyclopedia!
Rather than match the Marsalis with a repertoire standard, the OSM saw fit to program Accelerando, a 2016 exercise in the eponymous tempo indication by the late Spanish-born Montrealer José Evangelista. Open intervals in the quiet beginning — including the basso-profondo rumbling of an octobass — could hardly fail to bring to mind the start of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. Matters became more rhythmic as this 15-minute piece (intended to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Montreal métro system) progressed. As in much of Evangelista’s oeuvre, Western harmonies are used sparingly.
Heartily applauded if slenderly attended, this afternoon concert was one of 26 presented under the aegis of the OSM’s annual well-packed Virée classique festival. Around suppertime, I heard another Marsalis opus: A Fiddler’s Tale, a 1998 tribute to Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat, which likewise deploys a narrator and an instrumental septet.
In this case the protagonist is a violinist who, under the influence of the Devil, abandons her own music of “soul and glow” in favor of a more commercial career. And then returns to the South to meet up with her Uncle Bud and a certain Savior. I think. Despite patches of vivid wordplay (“We are going to jam us some zeros, baby”) and the earnest efforts of narrator Nantali Indongo to summon different voices, the story was hard to follow, even with a printed text. Add Southern accents and you can imagine the dilemma for francophones.
Happily, Marsalis has a keen ear for quirky dissonance. Musical numbers, some in a Stravinskian neoclassical style, constituted the true salvation of this 70-minute presentation, given to a crowd of about 120 on the stage of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Former OSM assistant conductor Dina Gilbert led a crack squad made mostly of OSM regulars, including associate principal trumpet Stéphane Beaulac, who made a vivid impression. If the title role of the Fiddler was performed with less distinction by Marianne Dugal, the fault might lie partly in violin writing that (not unlike Stravinsky’s) stressed methodical double-stops in the middle range.