Brubeck pleads for justice in music

Review: Most of Saturday's performance at the Meyerhoff was devoted to his ambitious 1969 choral project `The Gates of Justice.'

March 26, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Dave Brubeck walks across the stage with the measured gait of an octogenarian these days, but when he sits at the piano, the years drop away. Such was the case Saturday evening when he and his current jazz quartet joined the Baltimore Choral Arts Society at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

The concert explored more than his enduring, distinctive playing style, with its rich chords, strong rhythmic punctuation and ability to get a crowd riled up. The largest segment of the program was devoted to one of his ambitious choral projects, "The Gates of Justice," from 1969.

Brubeck, who studied composition with one of the most highly imaginative figures of the 20th century, Darius Milhaud, has a flair for constructing such large-scale works out of disparate materials. "The Gates of Justice," a response to racial tensions and Martin Luther King's call for non-violence, combines biblical and secular texts, grand oratorio writing, traditional Jewish cantorial singing, jazz, blues and a hint of rock.

This one-hour plea for brotherhood gets a little carried away; in an unpersuasive, confrontational gesture, the chorus shouts the `N' word and a couple of other slurs. The jazz quartet sections of the score don't always flow smoothly into and out of the rest of the score. And, for all of their lush harmonic sequences, some of the choral passages lack the melodic weight to support their expressive intent.

But that intent - the composer's sincere attempt to address what were, and largely remain, burning social issues - holds "The Gates of Justice" together and gives it a certain integrity.

The chorus responded to Russell Gloyd's incisive conducting with exceptional technical and tonal control. Tenor Alberto Mizrahi struggled with high notes but delivered the cantor-like solos fervently. Kevin Deas brought a warmly enveloping sound and potent phrasing to the baritone solos, especially "When I Behold Thy Heavens" (with a tuba providing counterpoint, one of Brubeck's most inspired touches). A large brass and percussion ensemble completed the sonic picture.

Hall led the Choral Arts Society in colorful a cappella pieces; Randall Thompson's "Alleluia," in particular, showed off the group's extraordinary cohesion and musical sensitivity.

During a segment by itself, the Dave Brubeck Quartet turned in some impressive work (despite rather heavy-handed drumming by Randy Jones).

A snazzy version of "I Got Rhythm" included a wonderfully subtle solo by bassist Michael Moore. The classic "Take Five" featured fiery work from consistently brilliant sax man Bobby Militello and a fascinating, almost Rachmaninoff-like riff by Brubeck, who seemed as delighted to be making music as the vociferous audience was to be hearing it.

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