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Satu Vanska and Branford Marsalis

North and South America, both sides of the Pacific, Lomonosov in Russia, and a killing field in Scotland – it’s territory for inspiration and exploration for one of the world’s great orchestras and a giant of modern jazz.

Branford Marsalis and the Australian Chamber Orchestra explore common and new ground in the current concert series touring Australia, playing the works of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Igor Stravinsky, Astor Piazzolla, Sally Beamish, Osvaldo Golijov and Alberto Ginastera.

In this interview – a version of which appeared in the concert program for the tour, principal violinist and program director, Satu Vanska, and Marsalis talk about rhythm, spirit and the blending of the old world and the new.


Don’t ask saxophonist Branford Marsalis about the age of his instrument or try to engage him in the minutiae of equipment. He’ll be polite, but he won’t be interested.

That’s not how they did things in Louisiana where he grew up, one of four musician sons to a jazz singer mother and a pianist father. That’s not how he does things now, nearly 40 years into a professional career that began, while he was still studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, as a sideman for bandleader and drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Marsalis says “it’s to my advantage to not be that way”, as he approaches his debut in Australia performing from the classical repertoire.

“When you play an instrument, not in my circumstances, but in most circumstances, you spend so much time focusing on the instrument that the instrument becomes the primary focus. And at some point, as a musician, you have to realise that the instrument is a medium and the music is another thing completely,” Marsalis says, quietly but firmly.

“In some ways, growing up in New Orleans, we understood it. We had a lot of guys playing in brass bands and funk bands who were playing with faulty equipment and they never complained about the equipment: they put tape on it, they put a rubber band on it, and that would just keep going.”

Not that he is without thoughts in this area, having traversed jazz, as leader and contributor, pop, including a decade playing with Sting, and Latin music. If pressed, Marsalis will explain that he uses a different, smaller mouthpiece playing symphonic pieces as it offers more control, less “air in the tone” and a “smaller” sound.

Crossing genres is less about the tools and more about the listening, he argues. More about what you absorb and what you can bring with you. Take Heitor Villa-Lobos, one of the leading figures of Brazilian 20th century music, whose Fantasia For Saxophone And Orchestra was Marsalis’ choice for his program with the ACO.

Heitor Villa-Lobos

“Villa-Lobos is an interesting guy because he decided to write symphonic music and he had no traditional, European training at all. A lot of his pieces are like discoveries: you have to figure out how to play them,” Marsalis says with a conspiratorial laugh. “I’ve heard many versions of the Fantasia and I haven’t really been comfortable with any of the interpretations, particularly the phrasing. Because he was not only from Brazil, he was of Brazil, proud of it … There’s a kind of rhythmic pulse built into the music and it crosses over into the phrasing. If you haven’t spent a lot of time listening to Brazilian music it would be harder for you to glean that.

“I have listened to a lot of Brazilian music, so when I play it it’s mostly in the phrasing. I think a lot of people will find it very quirky: they won’t have anything they can settle on. The second movement is very beautiful. The third movement sounds like a chase scene in a cowboy movie. When it starts it starts with the basses and every time in my mind I’m going ‘Yee-ha!’ I don’t know how to explain that piece.”

If explaining it is hard, playing it as it was conceived – for soprano saxophone – may be harder still, its original performance already semi-mythical for its near disaster. It’s a story Marsalis relishes retelling.

“It was originally written for [French saxophonist] Marcel Mule and he didn’t know what to make of it, so he says ‘I’m not going to play this piece’, a month before the premiere. They scramble to find a replacement and could not find a soprano player in the country, but there was a tenor player.”

That tenor saxophone player, Waldemar Szpilman, was the cousin of the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, whose story was the basis of the Oscar-winning film The Pianist. But even here, the story has a further twist.

“He asked Villa-Lobos if he could lower the piece one full step because it’s very hard to play some of that on the tenor. So the premiere was played on tenor by Szpilman and the published version was one step lower than it was written, for soprano.”

After a friend of Marsalis’ found the original score, Marsalis had it transposed to its original key, which is the version he now performs. Though he remains shocked that the original remained unheard for some 50 years, he wryly notes that “it’s not lost on me that Mr Mule didn’t know what to make of the piece, how to approach it or how to play it”.

Still, “now the string players don’t hate the piece as much as they used to [because] the fingering, when it was lowered, was really difficult to play and orchestras routinely said, ‘Man, I hate this.’”

Astor Piazzolla

The reconstituted Fantasia was the spark for the ACO’s Principal Violin, Satu Vänskä, who is directing the Marsalis program, to expand into a South American adventure. Alongside Stravinsky’s No. 3 from Three Piece For Solo Clarinet, and Villa-Lobos’ Aria from Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, will be works by Argentine composers Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla, the giant of modern tango.

The combined Piazolla pieces are semi-seriously known as the Four Seasons Of Buenos Aires, though its connection to Vivaldi is tenuous at best and certainly not part of Piazolla’s original intentions. The clearly urban textures of the Argentine may surprise modern audiences, who from a 21st century distance think of the Vivaldi as representing a rural idyll, a natural rhythm.

“Actually, if you think about it, the Vivaldi is urban,” says Vänskä, who points out that tango is, as she puts it, urban flirting music connected to convivial evenings of wine and dance. She says The Four Seasons, “is tied to the times, with autumn being harvest time for example, and also they would have big parties during the harvesting, so it’s all about the people getting drunk after the harvest. [On] the music is written ‘this is a drunkard who is stumbling out of a party’. So it’s very social at the same time.”

Of course, Vivaldi was not writing from life spent in a little hamlet; he was for the time an urban dweller who was celebrating something vivid in his imagination, both old and current.

“That’s what I’m thinking with the Piazolla, too: what do I want to achieve with it?” Vänskä asks. “It’s the Tango Nuevo, so Piazolla’s tango was not the strict old tango of Argentina, either. He made it his own version of that identity and [furthermore] this is an arrangement by a Russian for a string orchestra.

“I have been listening a lot to Piazolla’s own quintets and how he treats time and how he treats the textures of his quintet, which were bandoneón, piano, the bass and the violin and percussion. And I find it very, very fascinating how to achieve that sort of hybrid sounds out of the strings so that the string orchestra can sound like a bandoneón at times. We do try to chase that essence of the quintet and the essence of the urban, of Buenos Aires, of tango.”

The links between the Brazilian and the Argentines are more than geographical, with all three composers blending their folk traditions with European compositional forms, finding themselves in between old and new worlds in a way rather familiar for this Australian orchestra, and for Vänskä, a Finn, born in Japan and long resident here.

“I think we can relate to that. Australia is a ‘between’ place, too. Let’s be honest,” she says. “It’s an immigrant country with a complicated past, and the immigrant part is very, very new, so you are geographically in a very different place to where your cultural heritage comes from. And I find it fascinating in this program, thinking that Ginastera studied in America with Aaron Copland and Aaron Copland studied with Nadia Boulanger who is the unsung heroine of the 20th century really.

Nadia Boulanger

“When she heard Piazolla do the tango, she said ‘This is your music, why aren’t you doing this? This is the music you should be doing’ rather than the 20th century contemporary concert music he was studying. It’s curious that she saw that in him, and that’s where the Tango Nuevo started.”

Crossover, before crossover became a thing.

“Composers had always done that but it really opened up in the 20th century with jazz coming to Europe in the early 20th century and composers like Ravel and Arvo Part hearing jazz when they had these African-American bands coming in,” Vänskä says.

“And they were absolutely fascinated by it, so these European composers started using jazz in their own music. Then these composers in South America started using their own music as well as [a traditional or European] approach.”

Just thinking about the way the already rich catalogue of music expanded over the past century excites Vänskä, who regularly flies the ACO coop for the more relaxed lines of the experimental ACO Underground.

“That’s one of the real gifts of being a classical musician. We know this: we have such a huge amount of repertoire and knowledge of different eras. Something which is sadly lacking sometimes in popular musicians,” she says. “We can play so many different things and people are not expecting us to be doing certain things, so I think in a way it’s a nice thing to have that sort of calling card of people being surprised.

“I have said that it’s important to entertain people but what I mean is that going to a concert should not be a place where you just switch off your brain. We can give you something refreshing to think about and give you a different angle of ideas.”

Refreshing the brain as much as the repertoire is part of the process for Marsalis, who played his first classical piece as a teen. He remembers being “this16-year-old kid from New Orleans who grew up playing rhythm and blues and marching bands, playing Glazanov, and I’m sure it was pretty horrid”. He also remembers that when he returned to the form seriously three decades later “I was working with the [New York chamber ensemble] Orpheus Orchestra and I was as green as green can be, rough around all edges, period”.

“They pointed me in the direction and took care of me. I love the opportunity to play with world-class musicians in an environment where they control it. It’s exhilarating.”

Sally Beamish

Marsalis’s second selection for the ACO program, Under The Wing Of The Rock Saxophone Concerto No.2, is by the English composer Sally Beamish, who wrote it for viola originally but, with Marsalis in mind, rearranged it for alto saxophone.

“I welcomed the idea, and the first time I played it I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s going to get better,’” the saxophonist remembers. “She is funny. Her instinct is, ‘Oh, I could have done better.’ And I was like, ‘That was not you; that was me.’

“I recorded it a few years ago and I was still like, ‘I’m sorry I’m not playing the way it needs to be; I’m not ready.’ Now, I think I play pretty good. I understand the phrasing and how it has to be and I’ve changed some fingerings to make it more technically efficient and I’m working through it. I understand it better musically, not necessarily technically - I’m ready to make music out of it now.”

If the Villas-Lobos reflects a South American urban life, the Beamish could not be further away.

“With Sally, a lot of her pieces start out very serene. She moved to Scotland and spent a lot of time listening to the air and the smell of the sea, and that’s what I’m going to evoke for the beginning of the piece, that kind of calm. Then the fugue starts and it’s quite exciting before we return to the sea. It’s more about feeling things than saying things.”

As anyone who has spent time on the coast of Scotland knows, particularly to the north, that mix of serenity and intense excitement very much sums up the volatility of the natural world.

“With that perpetual rain [in Scotland] the green is a kind of green you get in a jungle environment, more so than in normal situations. It always rains just enough and that’s the kind of imagery I use when I’m playing it, especially in the adagio at the beginning,” Marsalis says. “In the fugue, I’m focused more on playing my notes right because I’m playing off of the orchestral players.

“There’s a lot to think about and I can’t be so serene in that part as I’m trying to blend in with the orchestra and bounce off of what they’re doing. They are doing things behind me that are quite unorthodox at times.”

As a final thought on genre and border crossing, Marsalis pulls back from theorising and comparisons to something more straightforward: his view that making sound to create emotion is universal, and maybe paramount.

“There is a presumption that jazz audiences and classical audiences have a certain level of sophistication that pop audiences don’t. I’ve seen no real evidence of that,” he says. “I am a big opera fan, and routinely people tend to applaud, if it’s done well, the set design when the curtain opens. People hear with their eyes, and I’m not saying that pejoratively. As a musician we spend so much time working on the things you and I are talking about that we sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that that’s what it’s actually about, and that the audience is going to respond to that.

“The audience is going to respond to how it feels when you’re done, and that’s it.”

Which maybe brings us back to the debate we began with, about tools vs expression, equipment vs ears and hearts.

“If you don’t listen to music, if you don’t listen to certain styles of music, you have no way of actually understanding how that music is supposed to sound,” Marsalis says. “You can’t get into the middle of it; all you can do is play it correctly. Which, as my teacher used to say: Well, it’s correct, but it ain’t right.”

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