“That guy’s got a guitar!”
To his chagrin, the man piped up just when the crowd hushed, and probably didn’t mean to sound a general alarm, but the outcry came from his gut. Yes, that guy (Lansing jazz musician Neil Gordon) had indeed smuggled an electric guitar past the century-old maze of earthworks and moats that surround the classical castle. What´s more, Gordon’s comrade, Larry Ochiltree, had somehow slipped a glittery drum kit past Checkpoint Tchaikovsky, while the trio’s third member, principal bassist Ed Fedewa, brazenly worked both the classical and jazz sides — a double agent on double bass.
It turned out to be a delicate infiltration. Thanks to well crafted music, sensitive playing and the warmth and power of soprano Allison Sanders, all fears of clashing idioms evaporated when the symphony embarked on “Ancestral Waters,” a stately jazz-and-classical voyage by composer Brian Gaber.
Toggling from symphonic music to jazz — with wha-daht-dahts of orchestral emphasis during the transitions — isn’t a new thing. From the 1950s, great composer-arrangers like Oliver Nelson, Gerald Wilson and Lao Schifrin painted pleasingly on the same extended sonic palette, often in film scores.
But Gaber mixed musical styles for a more serious purpose than to track a 1970s movie detective from confrontations to cocktails. “Ancestral Waters” takes two profound poems for a multi-layered cruise of regret and reflection on the African-American experience.
There was fleeting balance problem when Gordon’s guitar struck a couple of notes that rang oddly loud, but otherwise, the transitions from symphonic to jazz and back were deftly done, and, more important, built a coherent arc of feeling.
The process was strikingly fluid. Several times, after a purely orchestral melody would unfold, the tempo gently kicked up, the jazz trio seemed to appear out of nowhere, and Gordon’s angular, trumpet-like guitar lines bounced the music back, over the same chord sequence, but in the language of jazz.
Gaber’s hip-to-it-all idiom is a tad anachronistic for “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a Langston Hughes poem written in 1920. But by jetting into jazz while Sanders (still in classical mode) sang a litany of great rivers, the music suggested a timeless perspective, a present day pilgrim taking a reflective ride on the ancient waters. (I pictured Hughes on a pontoon boat, in a trench coat and fedora, smoking and thinking.)
All forces navigated the polystylistic shoals well, but Sanders provided the fire in the boiler room. At 25, Sanders exudes uncanny maturity, warmth and wisdom, dusted with the right amount of childlike wonder. Her rich, warm voice and clear commitment to this music made every syllable throb with life.
Not only did Sanders send the words soaring over a full orchestra and an electrified jazz trio, but she also kept it real when the music threatened to get too wooden. The middle movement, “Prayer,” veered toward the kind of film music you hear when Abraham Lincoln, Spartacus or some noble personage gazes at a sleeping spouse on the eve of a battle. With Sanders singing a wordless “ooo” on top, the music melted from a stiffish formula into a natural blend of comfort and mourning.
In the third movement, Sanders dialed her power back and found a new level of inner conviction to grapple with the unseen chains stretching across the Atlantic from West Africa to the New World. Her restraint gave the delicate verse, by Ghanaian poet Joe Coleman de Graft, a quiet but wicked undertow. Starting with an over-the-top crash of symphonic spray and ending with the sweet jingle of djembe and agogo bells, the music seemed to arrive from some deep source in West Africa.
Thanks to Gaber’s craft, the musicians’ skills, and everybody’s restraint, this mix of musical styles never felt like a mix. Neither W.A. Mozart nor Wes Montgomery had cause to turn in their graves.
“Ancestral Waters” was an explicit nod to the major work on Saturday’s slate, Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, a self-proclaimed amalgam of African-American and “classical” elements. The symphony is grand and leisurely, like a trip out West, and expansive music director Timothy Muffitt didn’t stint the scenic views. (Gretchen Morse’s lovely English horn solo in the second movement alone was cause to send a postcard home.)
Languor almost got the best of the orchestra in the third movement, when the pace started to droop and a few transitions got sloppy, but all forces converged with a bang for the fourth movement. How could they not? The symphony ends with a buffalo stampede that tramples everything flat, save for a few shreds of themes from earlier movements. To make the finale sound extra final, Muffitt pulled out a stop or two that hasn’t been pulled for a quite while, whipping up a tremendous climax. Even if you’re tired of orchestras´ programming the “New World” over and over, it was hard not to have a little fun. The last chord is a suddenly subdued echo that only sounds right in the concert hall, with your ears still throbbing from the hoofbeats. You don’t stand up, brush off your lapels and grin like that after listening to a CD.