So what is America's most prominent and powerful jazzman doing writing a classical violin concerto?
In fact, the Violin Concerto that Wynton Marsalis composed for Scottish violin virtuosa Nicola Benedetti, which will receive its American premiere with her as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on next Tuesday night at Ravinia, is the latest in a series of works that the multi-talented trumpeter, composer, educator and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center has written for classical symphony orchestra.
As a performer and recording artist, the trumpeter early on proved himself to be a virtuoso who's adept in both the classical and jazz realms.
Consider Marsalis' epic oratorios "Blood on the Fields" (the first jazz composition to win a Pulitzer Prize, in 1997) and "All Rise" (commissioned by the New York Philharmonic in 2002), also his "Swing Symphony" (premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2010). He has pointed out that the classical violin has been part of his life since he was a teenager.
But if Marsalis' Violin Concerto is yet another step on the composer-performer's journey through the bastions of high culture that Duke Ellington braved a generation before, taking on the unique concerto he wrote expressly for her is most definitely a departure for Benedetti, a fast-rising international violin star whose reputation up till now has been firmly fixed in the classical repertory.
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Benedetti, who will turn 29 on July 20, said in a recent telephone interview from her London home that stepping outside her musical comfort zone — finding the right sound and feeling for the jazz, blues, swing, gospel and other styles that inform Marsalis' work — has been a challenge she's very much enjoying.
Even so, she confessed, her own journey through the music may be far from over.
"I would hope that once the piece is totally settled in, I will be able to explore the kind of freedom that's basic to jazz composition and is second nature to a lot of jazz musicians," said the violinist, who was born in West Kilbride, Scotland, to an Italian father and a Scottish mother. "I will wait for my heart and soul and instinct to guide me to new ways to play the piece."
Benedetti's certainly done her homework, having spent the better part of the last decade immersing herself in Marsalis' recordings, absorbing the jazz polymath's musical language into her being, as if she knew this day would eventually arrive.
At the same time, she insists there isn't that wide a stylistic gulf separating many of the classical works she performs from her colleague's Violin Concerto. "The departure from, let's say, Vivaldi to Shostakovich is not much greater than from Shostakovich to Marsalis," she said. "It's a similarly graspable shift for me."
It's not precisely clear whose idea it was — Benedetti's or Marsalis' — to compose a concerto for her. But what she jokingly calls her "constant jabbing" eventually paid off. Numerous emails and telephone calls were exchanged during which she answered his detailed questions about string playing techniques. He, in turn, did everything he could to ease her into his world.
"I found working with Nicola a pleasure, and she's taught me a lot," the 54-year-old jazz great said by phone from New York.
Benedetti's response to early drafts of the concerto was that the music wasn't hard enough to play; so Marsalis piled on difficulties that would further test her technical chops. "I found myself in the strange position of giving Wynton Marsalis guidelines on what he should compose," she said, laughing. "It felt like an awful responsibility.
"The only criticism I could possibly have is that Wynton has too much creativity — he is just exploding with ideas."
Marsalis had thrilled to Benedetti's violin playing more than a decade ago when he first heard her perform at Lincoln Center. But because of his myriad undertakings he wasn't able to begin focusing on the concerto until last year, a process that spanned some four or five months, accompanied by what she jokingly calls her "constant jabbing."
"Nicola is very serious, has tremendous range and is extremely intelligent," Marsalis said. "She's not like one of those old-school virtuosos whose musical biases and training make them look down on stuff."
What emerged from their creative interchange is a four-movement concerto with a programmatic design that's pure Marsalis. The first movement, titled "Dreamscape," incorporates a lullaby, a nightmare and feelings of serenity and recollection. The second is a circuslike "Rondo Burlesque," with ragtime elements. This leads to a slow blues movement. The finale is an unabashedly wild hootenanny.
If this makes the concerto sound like a kind of 40-minute capsule history of popular musical Americana, that's exactly what Marsalis intended. "I tried to get a lot of our music into the score, because that's who we are as a people and that is what our country is," he said. All of the themes are original, he added — "I almost never quote other people's music in my music."
The composer refutes the notion that the violin and jazz have little in common.
"European music of all kinds, including Celtic fiddle-playing, was at the heart of jazz," Marsalis said. "There's a rich jazz fiddle tradition in this country. The slaves who were brought over from Africa played fiddles, and America's earliest jazz bands had fiddles before they were replaced by trumpets and cornets. Stuff Smith, who died in 1967, was a great jazz fiddler. Mark O'Connor plays all kinds of music."
Marsalis is not a composer who's easily satisfied with his work, which is why he will add, subtract and tinker with his musical materials — "mess with things until they reach what I feel is their final form," as he put it.
Before Benedetti gave the concerto its world premiere with the London Symphony Orchestra in November, she and Marsalis decided to test-drive the work-in-progress at a closed concert readthrough three months earlier at the Chautauqua Festival in upstate New York.
Following that performance, Marsalis made considerable changes to the score, including rewriting the cadenza that leads into the bluesy third movement. Further changes followed the London performances.
In fact, "I'm still working on it," he said two weeks ago. When asked whether the CSO performance will represent the concerto in its final form, Marsalis was noncommittal. "I can tell when I hear it," he said.
So, stay tuned: The concerto may yet morph into something rather different as it makes the rounds of the other co-commissioning organizations. From Ravinia, Benedetti will take the work to the Hollywood Bowl for a July 28 performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Later performances, all with her as soloist, are scheduled by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Orchestra and National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.
Audience members should come to Ravinia unburdened by preconceptions about what a violin concerto should or shouldn't be, she cautioned.
"The things that are unique with this piece are the things that are great about it. The music is eclectic, and there is a lot to take in. Wynton is funny and quirky, and there are so many little moments of humor and color in it. I would encourage people to go along for the ride and have fun."
Yes, but will classical buffs and jazz fans find common ground when they discover the piece?
"I never presume to know where the audience is coming from, but I hope they enjoy the music," Marsalis said. "I always want people to have a good time when they hear my works. The last thing I want to do is bore them. Of course, I also hope they will like Nicola's playing, that they will be moved by the depth of her virtuosity and by the emotion of her playing."
Nicola Benedetti will perform the U.S. premiere of Wynton Marsalis' Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cristian Macelaru conducting, 8 p.m. July 12 at the Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook roads, Highland Park; $25 and $75, $15 lawn; 847-266-5100, www.ravinia.org.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.
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