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Jazzy? Strike up the bland

October 13, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic
  • FUSION: Branford Marsalis, left, performs as Gil Jardim conducts the Philarmonia Brasileira.
FUSION: Branford Marsalis, left, performs as Gil Jardim conducts the Philarmonia… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For the…)

Make a poet a diplomat and good may come of it. France sent the great humanist writer Paul Claudel to Brazil during World War I, and food found its way from South America to France during a period of privation. So too did Brazilian music, once the war was won.

Make a composer a diplomat and cultures tend to merge. Claudel brought Darius Milhaud to Rio in 1917 as his secretary, and there this restlessly multi-stylistic Parisian composer befriended his Brazilian contemporary, Heitor Villa-Lobos. The latter quickly turned Francophile. The former became besotted by Brazilian music. Together, they created a hybrid Brazilian music, filtered through a French sensibility, that instantly captivated the world.

It still does. On Friday night, saxophonist Branford Marsalis brought his Marsalis Brasilianos express -- a Milhaud/Villa-Lobos program with a Sao Paulo chamber orchestra, Philarmonia Brasileira, touring the States this month -- to UCLA's Royce Hall.

The occasion was the 50th anniversary next year (but this season) of Villa-Lobos' death. But Milhaud, one of the first classical composers to write a jazz-inspired masterpiece, seemed just as much inspiration to a jazz musician who is also at home performing with orchestras in concert halls.

Villa-Lobos and Milhaud were two of the most prolific of the 20th century's major composers. Each wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 scores, the vast majority of which are now neglected. Each coincidentally (or was it competitively?) turned out 18 string quartets and 12 symphonies.

Given the enormous potential, Friday's program was unimaginative. It centered on the composers' most famous works -- Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" and Mil- haud's jazz-flavored "La Creation du Monde." In fact, these are Villa-Lobos' and Milhaud's only overplayed pieces.

By all accounts, the program was well rehearsed. It had been prepared in Brazil, and the orchestra's website (www.philarmoniabrasileira shows a punishing schedule of a different U.S. city every day this month. But at Royce, the small chamber group drawn from Philarmonia Brasileira felt ad hoc. No two players seemed to have the same style.

The strings were all over the place. One cellist, with many solos, displayed a vibrato so exaggerated that every note waddled into unfriendly neighboring pitch territory. The brass were undistinguished.

But I found the winds most fetching, especially an excellent clarinet player with a sense of swing. Percussion was hot.

Gil Jardim, the orchestra's founder, has an intriguing resume. He roams widely, working regularly with many of the great names in Brazilian pop and jazz, along with his classical gigs. But here he appeared near characterless -- OK when his beat was steady, not OK when it wasn't.

Marsalis is another mystery. His technique is competent. He doesn't have that sugary sweet vibrato that European classical saxophonists often favor, especially on the soprano, and that can be a relief. But he plays the notes on the page dryly, as though classical music were an improviser's straitjacket.

He tentatively tried out a few expressive novelties, such as adding unusual accents to "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5," but that was hardly enough to counter the bland arrangement for soprano saxophone and orchestra of this piece, originally written for soprano and eight cellos.

Milhaud's Brazilian side was little in evidence. "La Creation du Monde," for which Marsalis joined the ensemble, is African-themed. Funkiness is period practice, if Milhaud's recording in 1932, nine years after the ballet's premiere, is anything to go by. Still, this is wondrous music, and wondrousness was not conveyed Friday.

Lest any unfamiliar Villa-Lobos or Milhaud intrude, the program began and ended with bland works by Camargo Guarnieri and Lea Freire. I don't get it. How is it possible that a musician with a creative streak could wind himself up and mechanically play back this same program night after night all month? Marsalis must be bursting at the seams.


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