In the midst of an alluring, mind-and-ear-satisfying concert season for the Santa Barbara Symphony (SBS), the ensemble has ventured outward — with premieres and stylistic diversions — while satisfying its core audience’s inward desires for standard repertoire. The latest example of that delicate balance occurred at The Granada Theatre last weekend, as SBS, led by maestro Nir Kabaretti, steered into and through the world of jazz.
This was a moment for noted saxist/composer/genre-bender Ted Nash to shine, in symphonic company. Nash is something of a regular in Santa Barbara, having graced the Granada stage with his steady gig in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, as well as appearing as performer and educator in Santa Barbara Museum of Art projects across the street.
The distinction this time around was the opportunity to have his music, a four-part suite called Transformation, clad in orchestral arrangements. In his showcased music, Nash appeared as protagonist saxophonist (soprano and tenor) up front, and fine Los Angeles–based pianist Josh Nelson’s nimble trio in the “jazz corner” onstage. But said divisions of “corners” and jazz vs. classical components were gamely and intentionally intermingled, both in terms of instrumental textures and musical sources.
Nelson opened with a lyrical solo piano passage adapted from music of Alexander Scriabin but suggesting a blend of Maurice Ravel and jazz pianist Bill Evans’s touch. The final movement, “Wolfgang’s Samba,” was a case of taking a Mozartean theme to Brazil, refitted into a samba groove. Also in the mix, the warped blues form in a 13/8 meter called “Dalí” — tapping into Nash’s series of pieces inspired by visual art — and specifically the famed surrealist’s painting “Persistence of Memory.” More personally, his touching piece “Dear Dad” included his child Eli Nash on video, reading a letter announcing her transition into identifying as a male, an up-close and real-life “transformation.”
The program opened with Ernst Von Dohnányi’s “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Starry” piece Variations on a Nursery Song (with pianist Natasha Kislenko issuing her usual easy brio). It’s a friendly showpiece with heart on sleeve and not much on its mind, but was robustly delivered by the SBS.
After intermission, we heard a rich reading of Richard Strauss’s powerful Death and Transfiguration (the classical high point of the program) and Ravel’s ever-popular slow-mo crescendo adventure Boléro. On that finale, Nash was tucked up in the ranks in the reed section, and gave his solo melodic part that certain subtle “swing thing” in the phrasing.
In all, SBS’s February concert model was an impressive and intelligently considered symphony program, attentive to the needs of standard western classical fare, with jazz colors organically attached.