Sounds of a jazz legend stepping out on faith

Choral Arts Society shines in Brubeck's mostly uninspired religious `Beloved'

Music Review

April 02, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

It takes a considerable act of faith to believe in Dave Brubeck's religious works. The jazz legend, whose sophisticated piano style resulted in some of the coolest sounds to hit the 1950s and '60s, has produced several compositions for vocal and instrumental forces based on devotional texts. I have yet to hear one that measures up to his achievements in jazz.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society presented his 1978 Easter oratorio, Beloved Son, Sunday afternoon at Morgan State University's Murphy Fine Arts Center. The piece, with words by Herbert Brokering, covers much the same ground as a baroque-era Passion - the story of Jesus from Gethsemane to Calvary - and concludes with reflections on the resurrection. The music calls for baritone soloist, chorus, jazz quartet and an orchestra made of mostly of woodwinds and brass.

Members of the Choral Arts Society, prepared with typical care by music director Tom Hall, responded to conductor Russell Gloyd in colorful form. Aside from a tentative entrance early on, the singing was also admirably disciplined, especially in the eerie slitherings that accompanied the baritone's "I thirst, it is finished" solo and in the gospel-style finale.

That finale and occasional passages of improvisation yield the only real sparks in the work, which is otherwise hampered by the generally undistinguished nature of Brubeck's writing. The melodic lines he gives the baritone for the words of Jesus are particularly and unfortunately banal. Kevin Deas did his best to make those lines count.

As a prelude to the oratorio (and vamp-'til-ready cover to help the box office deal with the sizable turn-out), Brubeck and the rest of his current quartet - Bobby Militello on sax and flute, Michael Moore on bass, Randy Jones on drums - delivered some classy jazz. Brubeck started off "Pennies from Heaven" in a crisp, bouncy mood that belied his 82 years and soon had the others swinging the tune gently. A new Brubeck tune, "Elegy," with haunting sighs from the flute and baroque resonances in its descending bass line, produced precisely the kind of expressive beauty largely missing in Beloved Son.

I missed the rest of the program in order to catch what I could of the Atlantic String Quartet's appearance for the concert series at Central Presbyterian Church. The local premiere of Larry Hoffman's String Quartet No. 1: The Blues had just begun by the time I arrived. Mixing classical and jazz styles is a tricky business (as the Brubeck experience reinforced), but this Baltimore-based composer carries it off with aplomb.

The quartet, propelled by the measured tread of the blues and spiced by some hard-edged chords, taps the earthy side of the string instruments. Some transitions between the score's clearly delineated, symmetrically configured sections are a little abrupt, but, in the end, the piece holds together firmly. The Atlantic players - violinists Greg Mulligan and Rebecca Nichols, violist Christian Colberg and cellist Bo Li - gave it a taut, atmospheric performance.

More impressive still was the ensemble's account of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet, which enjoyed the full benefit of the church's superb, enveloping acoustics. In a couple of spots, Nichols' tone could have been cleaner, but her lyrical intensity proved a powerful guiding light from the first violin chair, especially during the second movement. That movement also found Li's cello singing out exquisitely. The outer movements had terrific drive and unfailingly tight rapport; the brilliant force the players summoned for finale, in particular, made it easy to hear the bonds of classicism giving way to Schubert's rush of romanticism.

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