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ASO performs part of Marsalis' unfinished symphony

By Pierre Ruhe For the AJC 11:38 a.m. Friday, November 20, 2009 After two postponements, anticipation was high for the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis' "Blues Symphony." It was billed as a 50-minute, seven-movement work that would explore the roots of American music. It would also be his first large work for purely orchestral forces -- a fully composed symphony in the grand tradition, filtered through the art and life of the celebrated New Orleans jazz trumpeter, band leader and prize-winning composer. But Marsalis hasn't finished his "Blues Symphony." Thursday in Symphony Hall, to a sold-out house, the Atlanta Symphony performed what Marsalis has thus far delivered: two movements, about 18 rambling minutes of music with intriguing possibilities, but that is still in first-draft form. Encouragingly, the ASO has again rescheduled the world premiere of the complete "Blues Symphony," this time for January and its annual "A King Celebration" concerts. The original commission comes from the ASO and the Boston Symphony, with support from Atlanta's National Black Arts Festival. Is it worth the wait? Marsalis is composing out of order. His Movement No. 3 calls on the ghosts of Scott Joplin and ragtime. Yet the opening is spare, hesitant and seems ill-formed. The strings have either too little to do or else are required to play colorless, four-square phrases. There are lovely woodwind solos and the occasional bawdy exclamation from the brassier regions of the orchestra, but not much to hold a listener. Gradually, the rhythms and musical ideas are layered one atop another, building into a dense and euphoric cacophony that evokes another influential American composer, Charles Ives. Movement 3 ends with a sassy little honk, reminding us that Marsalis knows the effects that please an audience. Everyone chuckled.

Movement No. 6 starts with a cozy violin and cello duet, then bursts into a Latin American dance piece, with congas and cowbells below and the violins playing angular melodies of narrow white lines and right angles. The orchestra claps a rhythm, there's an appealing hint of woodland woodwinds, and then a return to old Havana for the finish. I'd suggest Marsalis has the makings of a compelling work, and perhaps he might drop the creatively intimidating tag of "symphony." But even these two movements need a lot of work, and he's got five more to finish before January. The audience couldn't give Marsalis an A for effort in good conscience, but we did reward him with a standing ovation. Spano constructed the evening around facets of jazz. They opened with Leonard Bernstein's selfconsciously sultry and vulgar "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs," from 1949. The playing was razorsharp, and Laura Ardan's solo clarinet purred dangerously, like a big cat that is exquisitely lethal. Gershwin's "An American in Paris" taps some of the same cultural sounds that Marsalis seeks and was here played gorgeously, like it was "Ravel in America." Best of all was Olli Mustonen, a brainy and passionate pianist from Finland, who, as soloist in Ravel's G Major Piano Concerto, displayed awesome cool -- a crisp modern interpretation with aching lyricism in the slow movement and playful joy in the finale. An understated super virtuoso and an enlightened communicator, Mustonen must be invited back immediately. The ASO crackled alongside him. Pierre Ruhe blogs about classical music at CONCERT REVIEW Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. 3 p.m. Nov 22. $25-$80. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., 404-733-5000, Find this article at: