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Justin Varnes Orchestra's Peer Gynt Suite At The Jazz Corner

Justin Varnes Orchestra's Peer Gynt Suite At The Jazz Corner
Martin McFie By

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Justin Varnes Orchestra
The Jazz Corner
Peer Gynt Suite
Hilton Head Island, SC
January 20, 2019

Written in five acts of rhyming Danish verse, Peer Gynt is a play by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, which was set to music by fellow countryman Edvard Grieg. Where does the jazz come in? Like so much jazz, it comes in through the door marked "Duke Ellington" with "Billy Strayhorn" sharing the office. In the early '60s, while The Beatles held sway in pop culture, Ellington and Strayhorn wrote a series of big band versions of classical music, including the Peer Gynt Suite which inspired this concert.

Justin Varnes's Peer Gynt score was another one commissioned by the club owners of The Jazz Corner, the Masteller family and Martin McFie, for the club's Sunday series, "Where Classical Meets Jazz." It follows an illustrious trail of scores already played in the series, which started over a year ago. The list includes Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, Chopin's mazurkas, Beethoven's 5th Symphony, Barber's Adagio For Strings and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" concertos. The salient orchestral instruments from each movement and the rich vein of classical themes play with jazz musicians to bring American rhythms, harmonies and inflections to European classical music.

Peer Gynt had already been notably popularized by the advertising industry as background music selling everything from chocolate to shampoo, as well as in cartoons and movies. The storyline comes from an old Norwegian folk tale, in which the dissolute young antihero is banished, travels from the Arctic to the Sahara, and returns to his homeland years later, seeking redemption for his youthful misdeeds. Sparked by Peer's abduction of a bride, his dalliance with three milkmaids, and his betraying the love of Solveig, his downfall and banishment was assured. A head injury was used as the dramatic device allowing the play to ramble through various conditions of consciousness, from reality to dream, like a magical musical. It was an escape into a fairy tale world peopled by fantastic beings such as fairies and trolls, kings and exotic peoples. Grieg wrote the incidental music to the Romantic-style Ibsen play, which was savagely criticized when it premiered in Oslo. Norwegian society had stiff attitudes to everything in 1876, a time of Norwegian nationalism.

Grieg's two Peer Gynt suites excerpt eight of the best pieces from the original music he wrote to accompany the play. Ellington chose just five movements. The story goes that Strayhorn had finished work on his four allocated movements, but Ellington had only completed "In the Hall of the Mountain King." When they got the call to fill some studio time, they recorded just the five completed movements. The movements were not played in dramatic order to follow the story chronologically. Instead, the movements were ordered for musical balance and to bring equilibrium to the whole performance.

One of the largest leaps in the transition between classical and jazz is the addition of jazz rhythms. Logically, percussionist and composer Varnes was commissioned to write and arrange the music, taking Grieg's score and Ellington's adaptation as his starting point. Varnes followed Ellington's lead in using five movements and the full variety of instruments played by each musician in his seven-piece band. That choice feeds into one of the basic concepts behind the Sunday series: the conviction that some of the classical repertoire can be respectfully produced and made more accessible by using smaller, flexible orchestras. It's not an easy marriage, but adding the rhythms of American jazz to the European classics makes them more approachable and certainly a lot of fun.

Some of the heaviness inherent in the dark side of the Scandinavian character, born of long dark winters, was lifted by the swinging rhythm. Varnes used John Sandfort's tenor saxophone and Luke Weathington's alto saxophones to lighten and jazz up the mood. Nick Rosen's piano gave body to the sound. Lynn King's oboe and Weathington's flute were the soul of the two most important movements and were woven into the rest of the score for continuity. The drums were originally timpani, but Varnes carried the transition to jazz with a full trap kit.

The orchestra began with a lone flute opening the pastoral scene of "Morning Mood," music so well known as to be almost unrecognizable in its rightful context. The scene awakened with the flute's repeated chorus of a bird call at dawn, answered by oboe, then blossoming into a glorious new day with a crescendo and cymbal crash. The second movement, a sparkling "Anitra's Dance," was a Norwegian imagining of Moroccan music, depicting the daughter of a Bedouin king in Peer's travels.

In his explanations of each movement, Varnes admitted to having problems wrapping his Southern accent around the Norwegian names, with the ever-irreverent bassist Kevin Smith adding the loud aside, "Shoulda' gone to Ikea!"

Nick Rosen's piano led the infinitely slow, mourning third movement for the death of Peer's mother, joined by a gentle bass line, then softly switching to a funereal jazz dirge lightly brushed with rhythm. The tenor saxophone picked up the theme with punctuation from the trombone playing wah-wah sobs of despair through a plunger mute. The room was pin-drop quiet. The audience stopped eating to listen in respectful silence. The fourth movement, "Solveig's Song," is the bittersweet story of her enduring love for Peer, originally written for soprano. It expresses the sad loneliness of waiting a lifetime for Peer's return after their short romance many years earlier. "I will wait for you as I promised long ago," she sings, "And if you are in Heaven, I'll meet you there."

Finally, there came the excitement of "In the Hall of the Mountain King." Starting from the oboe opening with the famous theme, the movement accelerated to an exciting improvisational session with everyone, including trombonist Tim Pitchford, taking a swinging solo and running headlong together into a slamming stop. After that one sweet moment of disbelief and uncertainty, the audience erupted in a roaring standing ovation. This was an Ellington/Strayhorn day, so for their encore the orchestra took the A-train home, swinging the big band standard "Take The 'A' Train" into another ovation. The big band sound was up-close and acoustic in the small room. In the afterglow of the music, the audience stood around talking, astounded by Varnes's composition and the life-giving effect of jazz on well-loved classical music.

Even with all those changes, the melodies and themes remained inviolable in this distillation of a 143-year-old masterpiece, plucked from a shaky start in a challenging stage production and rising to classical renown. Stand back, and just add jazz.
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