My wife is off the hook this holiday season. The Chicago Philharmonic’s presentation of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, featuring great jazz pianist Marcus Roberts and his trio, is all the gift I need—and it came with Duke Ellington’s big band take on The Nutcracker Suite as the big red bow on top.
Sometimes a highly anticipated live performance exceeds your lofty expectations. Chicago Phil’s concert on Sunday at the Harris Theater transcended those expectations.
In an interview for a broader story about the orchestra’s creative process, conductor and artistic director Scott Speck did not spare the praise. Roberts is “one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.” Jason Marsalis, of the famed family of jazz performers, is “the single best drummer I’ve heard in my life.”
This turned out not to be hyperbole; it was more than that. For those of us who revere Gershwin, the Concerto in F (1925) is the longer companion piece to the breakthrough Rhapsody in Blue. That piece premiered the year before, and the composer delighted and shocked audiences with its introduction of African American jazz sound to the orchestral stage. But in traditional performances of these pieces, they are clearly jazz-inflected classical arrangements. With Roberts, Marsalis and bassist Rodney Jordan fronting the Chicago Philharmonic, the script was flipped, turning the concerto into a jazz masterpiece with classical overtones.
The approach contrasted significantly with that in the Grant Park Music Festival’s performance of the same piece in July, in which veteran Gershwin interpreter Jeffrey Kahane played the rapid-fire piano leads furiously, as though the keys had made him angry. Roberts also played the piece with blazing speed, but with more nuance, subtle jazz improvisations during his solos and in the sections when the trio took precedence over the orchestra. Roberts first introduced his version of Concerto in F in a 2003 concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, and he owns it.
What makes the 56-year-old Roberts a truly historic figure in jazz is that he has been blind since he was 5 years old. Like Ray Charles, he lost his sight to eye disease, and like Charles, he attended Florida’s St. Augustine School for the Deaf and Blind (though unlike Charles, who honed his craft playing in honky tonks, Roberts studied piano at Florida State University). A holder of a Helen Keller Award for Personal Achievement, his acquaintance with the Marsalis family dates to the 1980s, when he performed with Wynton Marsalis’ band.
The orchestra itself added to the jazz club atmosphere with featured solos on the clarinet (which was even more the signature instrument in Rhapsody in Blue), trumpet, trombone, and blazing work on the saxophone. As Speck explained, Chicago Philharmonic rotates among a roster of 200 performers, selected to best fit the program on a schedule that presents a wide variety of styles. “The Philharmonic chooses the musician who is most appropriate to the style, as opposed to orchestras of fixed rosters, where there are fewer options,” he said, continuing, “Many’s the time when, for example, you have a classical clarinetist who is asked to perform a jazzy riff that he or she is not comfortable with. We don’t have that problem.”
Had the Concerto in F, which made up the second half of the program, not been so overwhelming, we would be talking more about the piece that completed the first half: a swinging take on Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, written by Sir Duke with fellow jazz great Billy Strayhorn in 1960. Played with verve and lots of solos from the orchestra—and from Marsalis and Jordan of the Marcus Roberts Trio—the too-seldom-heard piece playfully changed the movement’s names. For instance, the Sugar Plum Fairy became the Sugar Rum Cherry.
It baffles me why this delightful piece is not a big part of our holiday canon. All I want for Christmas is you? Nah, all I want for Christmas is to hear Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker on a loop.
But wait, there’s more. The program began with Christmas Overture written in 1900 by British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (one of the few non-white classical composers of his day), which sampled carols such as “Good King Wenceslas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It was followed by Tchaikovsky’s “December,” a waltz from his The Seasons that was published in monthly installments in a music magazine in 1876; the piece recalls the composer’s ballet compositions, and he was, in fact, creating Swan Lake when he wrote this piece.
Although the Concerto in F was the final scheduled piece, the roaring approval of the audience elicited an encore by the Marcus Roberts Trio: a cleverly deconstructed version of Gershwin’s show tune “I Got Rhythm.” As the song says, who could ask for anything more?
Next up for Chicago Philharmonic is a holiday-theme brass concert by Chicago Phil Chamber—titled Merry and Bright—at City Winery on Randolph Street’s Restaurant Row, Sunday, December 22, at noon. Tickets are $25 for adults, $22.50 for seniors and $10 for students, and can be purchased here.