Jazz Meets Classical in the Chamber Orchestra’s Annual Gala
by Stanley Naftaly
This year’s version of a Starry, Starry Night, the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s annual benefit concert, is an exciting invitation to a wider audience from the 26-year-old pillar of our cultural and educational life. A stellar quintet, comprised of the cream of the area’s jazz musicians, and supported by an excellent classical string section, will celebrate mainstream vocal and instrumental jazz at the Lobero Theatre this Sunday evening, April 30.
Jazz and classical music have existed side-by-side for 100 years in this country. Just as there have been many great classical musicians who have explored jazz — Lalo Schifrin, Arturo Sandoval, Itzhak Perlman, and Claude Bolin, to name a few — there have been an equal number of jazz masters who have nibbled at the edges of classical music: Miles Davis with Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, and Lee Konitz immediately come to mind. This is an opportunity to see and hear world-class practitioners of both genres working together to produce an evening of music whose ability to excite, enchant, and uplift exceeds that of either of these genres alone.
Sunday’s jazz players include drummer Jon Nathan, director of the UCSB Jazz Ensembles; trumpeter Nate Birkey, who attended the Berklee School of Music; classically trained pianist Bruce Bigenho who also studied with the celebrated jazz pianist Joe Bushkin; bassist and ethnomusicologist Ralph Lori; and saxophonist Tom Buchner, who has played with Luis Muñoz and jazz legends Flora Purim and Airto Moreira. The string section is made up of violinists Claude Lise Lafranque, Valerie Malvinni, and Lisa Weinstein, violists Kirsten Monke and Modesto Marcano, and cellist Jeness Johnson.
Fittingly, the event’s symbolic and practical focal point is classical violinist-cum-jazz vocalist Sally Barr, who also happens to be producing the event. She started studying piano at the age of five and the violin at eight. After attending the Oberlin Music Conservatory, she enrolled at UCSB in 1992 and played in the university’s orchestra until 1995, when she graduated with a masters degree in performance. She was a member of the Santa Barbara Symphony from 1993 through 2005, and has played with Santa Barbara Opera since ’95 and with the Chamber Orchestra since ’96. Although she became interested in jazz while in college, she has been strictly a classical musician until recently — her debut as a jazz vocalist was last September.
Noting the common claim that what separates classical from jazz is the former’s lack of improvisation; Barr contended that this has not always been the case. She explained that when composers such as Paganini, Brahms, and Mozart wrote concerti, they expected that a performer would improvise his or her own cadenza. She speculated that the practice might have disappeared because more recent composers have wanted to exert closer control over the content of their works. To illustrate another point of basic similarity between jazz and classical music, she pointed out that the most basic jazz/blues chord progression, 1-4-5-1, is also the first progression a student of classical music learns. Barr’s shift to performing jazz was influenced by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald; Sarah Vaughn; Joe Williams; Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross; Nina Simone; and Louis Armstrong, legends whom she plans to salute in this weekend’s performance.
But the real salute will be to the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra, who since 1978 has presented the highest quality music and conducted extensive in-school education. All profits from the concert will benefit this education program.
4•1•1 The Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra’s Starry, Starry Night fundraiser is Sunday, April 30, 8 pm, at the Lobero Theatre. General tickets are $30. Call 963-0761. VIP tickets that include a pre-concert gala dinner catered by the Biltmore Hotel, an exclusive silent auction, and preferred concert seating are also available for $250 by calling 966-2441.