American Symphony [world premiere]
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 22 September, 2022
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City
Jon Batiste’s American Symphony brings together a diverse array of artists in a grand-scale suite reflecting the many cultures and ethnicities that come together in the US – along with the tensions between the ideals and realities of life in the ‘Home of the Brave’.
In response to the questions he poses – “What if the symphony was invented today in America?” “Who would participate in the modern American orchestra?’ – Batiste created a sixty-four-member ensemble, integrating orchestral players with indigenous vocalists and drummers, Afro-Latin percussionists, banjo players, an operatic soprano, jazz artists, country fiddlers, Jamaican steel drummers, and other ethnic musicians.
Stand-up comedian Chris Spencer, master of ceremonies for the event, started off the evening with a totally dispensable (and thankfully brief) routine of jokes about his wife and children. He then introduced Batiste, who made his entrance bounding down the aisle in a bright-blue tuxedo and his signature smile, sat down at the piano and kicked off his ninety-minute work, which began with a blend of seminal American anthems, the low strings and brass effectively evoking the complexities of American life. Near the end of the overture, he introduced the lyrical two-bar theme which resurfaced repeatedly, and then launched into the first of the work’s four conceptual movements – ‘Capitalism’, Integrity’, ‘Globalism’, and ‘Majesty’.
The divisions between movements were blurred and as the music moved from one section into the next, it was hard to know exactly where each began and ended, or precisely which sentiment was being depicted. Overall, the work came off as a joyous and beefy blend of orchestral sounds, funk, Dixieland, Latin, gospel, country, cool jazz, swing, hip-hop, R&B, as well as other styles and genres – sometimes subtly textured, often highly danceable, at other times more agitated. Much of the music had a strongly improvisatory feel as it alternately ruminated and surged. Indeed, some of the best moments were the ones where one sensed that the performers had been allowed freedom to improvise.
It is unfortunate that the soloists were not listed in the program, as there were many impressive solo contributions, especially those done on the fiddle, mandolin, and tenor saxophone. Batiste’s moments at the piano were highly memorable, as was the point near the end, when he abandoned his Steinway, moved over to the rhythm section, and played the work’s motif on an Oberheim synthesizer.After the final movement and the third standing ovation of the night, Batiste summoned up a jazzy encore that ended most appropriately with his own gorgeous, breakneck rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.