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Wednesday, April 11,2012

Two coups — beaucoup cool

Jazz legend Sonny Rollins and opera star Renee Fleming top Wharton Center's jazz and classics lineup in the new season

by Lawrence Cosentino

Two musical titans, saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins and soprano supreRollinsFleming.jpgme Renee Fleming, will headline the 2012-2013 Wharton Center jazz and classics series. Both artists are making their first appearances at Wharton. 

Whether you dig the Scotch-on-the-rocks kick of Rollins’ “St. Thomas” or swoon to the single-malt mellow of Fleming’s “O mio babbino caro,” that’s two colossal coups for the Wharton Center. Both artists have combined popular appeal with critical acclaim as few artists have.

In the jazz world, it just doesn’t get any better than Rollins, one the most enduring and accomplished musicians America has produced. His career stretches back to historic stints with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in the 1950s, followed by influential piano-less trio work that opened the tenor sax to wider realms of expression. 

At 82, Rollins is still in fine form and more in demand than ever. Wharton Center executive director Michael Brand has been trying to land Rollins for years. Rollins' Wharton date on Oct. 7 falls among gigs in Marseille, Vienna, Prague, Geneva, London and Bologna.

“He’s not easy to book,” Brand said. “He turns a lot of work down.”

This year, Michigan got lucky with Rollins: the Wharton gig and Rollins’ headlining appearance at the Detroit Jazz Festival Aug. 31 are two of only three U.S. performances on his schedule this fall. (The third is in St. Louis.)

Few would deny that Rollins and alto sax innovator Ornette Coleman are the two foremost living legends of jazz, but it would be a mistake to think of Rollins as a relic. Well before the Sept. 11 attacks sent Rollins fleeing from his New York apartment, saxophone in hand, he entered a new phase of creative energy and critical recognition. Last year’s live CD, “Road Shows Vol. 2,” was a near-unanimous critics’ pick as best of the year.

For classical music lovers, the chance to get direct vibrations from the spine-tingling voice of diva Renee Fleming is just as rare an opportunity. Fleming, who appears Feb. 27, limits her recitals to half a dozen or so a year.

In the classical world, it would be hard to find an artist who combines accessible, popular appeal with lavish artistic acclaim (Sir Georg Solti called her one of the two greatest voices he ever worked with).

Fleming, 53, has nailed nearly every significant soprano role in opera, stretching into contemporary material like Blanche DuBois in Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” while maintaining sway over the great Handel, Mozart and Puccini roles. She’s also been game for offbeat excursions like playing diva Renata Flambe on “A Prairie Home Companion” and singing in the nonexistent language of Sindarin for the soundtrack of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Fleming’s 2010 disc “Dark Worlds” explored what she called an “alternate universe” of rock tunes by Muse, Death Cab for Cutie, Leonard Cohen and others.

“We’ve been trying for six years to get her and we finally got on her radar,” Brand said. Last year, Wharton came close to snagging Fleming, but Ann Arbor’s University Music Society lured her away.

While Fleming is here, she will do a master class for Michigan State University College of Music students.

Beyond the Sonny Rollins date, Wharton’s 2012-1013 jazz series has more depth and strength than usual. On March 20, a true all-star package tour from the Monterey Jazz Festival teams vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who sang at Wharton in 2011, with four of jazz’s leading artists: bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green, saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Lewis Nash, each of whom has a truckload of recordings, awards and hard-core jazz-lover cred. 

The Monterey date will be followed up April 7, with an intriguing all-star date headed by one of jazz’s most respected guitarists, John Scofield. “The Hollowbody Band” matches Scofield with two other top jazz guitarists, Peter Bernstein and Kurt Rosenwinkel, with Bill Stewart on drums and Ben Street on bass.

Brand said he thought the jazz series was complete until a colleague dragged him to New York in January to hear the Birdland Big Band, a Big Apple-based bebop machine devoted to the music of Charlie Parker and his worthy constituents, led by veteran drummer Tommy Igoe.

“Man, was that a band,” Brand said. “Live at Birdland” will cram itself into the Pasant Theater Oct. 25, where Brand expects they will return every year. The jazz series is rounded out Dec. 6 by Latin powerhouse Tiempo Libre, returning to Wharton after successful dates there in 2006 and 2009.

Brand said the jazz series got a bit out of hand this year. “We thought we were only going to do a smaller thing in classical and jazz, because with the economy, you never know. But there were too many things to get.”

As Brand acknowledged, Wharton’s classics series is comparatively slim next season, with only two dates besides Fleming’s. The BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Keith Lockhart will come to town Jan. 31, and a perennial crossover favorite, flutist Sir James Galway, arrives with his “Legacy Tour” March 28. Galway will also do a master class at MSU.

That means there will be a complete absence of non-pops symphonies, opera and chamber groups at Wharton next year, other than performances by the Lansing Symphony and the MSU College of Music.

However, Brand said the classics will return in force the following season. Talks are under way to renew the Wharton’s partnerships with the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit Symphony. Brand is also working on a visit from Russia’s St. Petersburg Symphony, with Yuri Temirkanov conducting, for the fall of 2013.

The complete 2012-2013 Wharton Center season will be announced on Sunday. Visit www.lansingcitypulse.com for details.


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