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Review: Wynton Marsalis, Tulsa Symphony and singers 'All Rise' to cornucopia of musical styles
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Review: Wynton Marsalis, Tulsa Symphony and singers 'All Rise' to cornucopia of musical styles

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Wynton Marsalis may not have written his first symphony in response to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. But one would be hard-pressed to think of a more appropriate way officially to conclude the city of Tulsa’s commemoration of this tragedy than with a performance of this epic work.

Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra joined forces with the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, and a group of singers drawn from some 50 local churches, schools and arts organizations under the name of the Tulsa Community Commemoration Choir, to perform “All Rise: Symphony No. 1,” Sunday afternoon at the BOK Center.

The concert was presented in collaboration with the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission.

One reason why this concert was so appropriate is that Marsalis’ work tells, through music and gospel-influence lyrics, a universal story. In the program notes, Marsalis describes as “the progression of experiences that punctuate our lives, from birth to maturity.”

But Sunday’s performance, perhaps because of the context of this moment in this place, resonated on a deeper, more spiritual level. As “All Rise” unfolded over the course of the two hours it takes to perform it, the three sections evoked a state of grace and innocence, a horrific fall from that state, and the realization that to rise up again, you’re going to need help.

And that’s another reason why this work was so appropriate, because it creates a community on stage. The components — the symphony orchestra, the jazz ensemble, the massed choir — are distinct and individual throughout much of the piece, with interactions often taking a form similar to the “call and response” of the blues, which Marsalis used a structural basis for “All Rise.” But when these groups do come together, the effect is overwhelming.

It just proved what David Robertson, who conducted concert, said in a conversation last week with the Tulsa World: “Music demonstrates that we are all better together, (that) together we are capable of doing things that are impossible for us to do on our own.”

But one did not need to dig for deeper meanings to enjoy what took place Sunday at the BOK Center. “All Rise” is a cornucopia of musical styles, rhythms and instrumental sounds, from country fiddling to contemporary minimalism, New Orleans jazz and dance forms to Latin-flavored pulses, sophisticated swing to childlike song.

Marsalis’ writing is so inventive, and the collective players performances so energetic and focused, that one’s attention never wandered. Throughout the afternoon there were dazzling solos by members of the Tulsa Symphony (a cello-violin duet between principal cellist Kari Caldwell and associate concertmaster RonnaMarie Jensen was exceptional) as well as of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, such as Elliot Mason’s electrifying trombone solo in “Saturday Night Slow Drag” and Marsalis’ own blistering trumpet solo during the “Save Us” movement, one of the piece’s most dramatic and affecting movements.

That idea of community was something Marsalis seemed to pursue. Although he is the composer of the piece performed, and the artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, he performed as a member of that group’s trumpet section (albeit his place within that section put him at what looked to be the exact center of the BOK stage area). He even seemed reluctant to step forward and acknowledge the applause at concert’s end; it appeared that conductor Robertson had to persuade Marsalis to step to the front of the stage of a moment or two.

Damien Sneed, who teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and has worked with Jazz at Lincoln Center, prepared the Tulsa Community Commemorative Choir, which performed with distinction. Vocal soloists were Sequina Dubose, Markita Knight, Kaleb Alexander Hopkins, Nicole Elaine Phifer, Anitra McKenney, Jamal Moore and Catherine Russell.

Because of social distancing, the crowd assembled for this concert appeared rather sparse, but Tulsa Symphony officials said that the attendance was 2,034 — about 500 more people than attended the symphony’s first concert at ONEOK last September. About 100 descendants of survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre were provided with tickets for the concert.

And yes, when the last note of “All Rise” finished reverberating around the BOK Center, those in attendance did just that, for a sustained, heartfelt ovation.

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