In 1955, composer Leonard Bernstein introduced a national television audience to what he called “serious” jazz by premiering “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs.” Audiences around the country saw a classical conductor leading a jazz ensemble, sans baton, through his crackling score of sharp dissonances, swing eighth notes and an undeniable pulse. It likely seemed shocking at the time.
More than six decades later, the argument that jazz needs to be taken seriously in a concert hall setting is superfluous. Classical composers insert jazz phrases into their work without a second thought; one of the best jazz albums from 2018, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s “Origami Harvest,” is anchored by teeming, intricate string quartet writing.
Indeed, programming the three-movement “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs” at the start of Thursday night’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert — a continuation of a two-year celebration of Bernstein and Beethoven — didn’t create much of a stir at all. Guest conductor Christopher Allen led a 17-piece jazz ensemble comprised of ASO members and a few additions who gamely whipped through a proficient performance, although the musicians had trouble settling into a swing groove. ASO clarinetist Ted Gurch doubled on alto saxophone and excelled during the “Fugue.” Clarinetist Laura Ardan tackled the solo clarinet part, originally written for Woody Herman, as she sidled around the stage, her ruddy, dark clarinet tone weaving in and out of the band’s sound.
Thursday marked the Symphony Hall debut for Allen, who is resident conductor for the Cincinnati Opera, but he has a long history with the city. Allen first led the ASO during a one-off event for the opening of the Porter Performing Arts Center in Covington in 2016, and his association with ASO music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles runs deep. Allen made his Atlanta Opera debut conducting the company’s 2018 production of “La Fille du Regiment.”
Allen is a conductor of concentrated, intense movement juxtaposed with lively physicality, and he clearly enjoyed conducting the makeshift jazz ensemble. Allen’s mannerisms didn’t dull when he returned to the stage for Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story.’” The composition is a hit parade of the Broadway show. Allen and the ASO treated the pieces as unique compositions, proving the classical bona fides of each show tune.
Broadway is an important and inextricable part of Bernstein’s oeuvre. The second half of the program brought out many of these songs recital style, with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Joseph Lattanzi singing songs from “On the Town,” “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” and “Peter Pan,” among others. With the ASO playing the amiable accompanist, Lattanzi was in perfect voice for “Pass the Football” from “Wonderful Town,” and Cooke brought a complex beauty to her four songs.
Guest conductors allow the Atlanta audience to get a different perspective on familiar music. While it might not be obvious, the musicians play for the conductor differently, the guest artist makes different choices in how to approach each score, and regular audience members get to hear how the orchestra reacts to new direction. Allen’s second appearance with the ASO comes on the wings of an ever-growing amount of glowing reviews. Here’s hoping he continues to make Atlanta a frequent stop in his travels.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. Jan. 10. Additional performance at 8 p.m. Jan. 12. $22-$99. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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