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Classical Album of the Week: The Philadelphia Orchestra Plays Wynton Marsalis's Blues Symphony

September 13, 2021. This recording captures the excitement of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2019 performance of Wynton Marsalis’s expansive and lyrical Blues Symphony. Here, the composer talks with us about the seven- movement work, which takes listeners on a musical journey, tracking different generations of American music from pre-colonial times through reconstruction to the civil discourse of democracy today.

With a childhood in New Orleans steeped in jazz at home and studies in classical music in school; Wynton grew into adulthood composing and playing in both genres; that he eventually wrote Blues Symphony was perhaps inevitable.

The blues, he says is “ like our folk form, like water that runs through our music … gospel music, country and western, bluegrass, forms of American popular music ... blues is a very prevalent, important element in all forms of our music.” He describes his Blues Symphony as “a seven-movement work that gives symphonic identity to the form and feeling of the blues.”

And writing for an orchestra has its own appeal. “I love the orchestral instrument; what it can do,” he says. His oratorio, Blood on the Fields, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for music. His first symphony, All Rise, was premiered at Lincoln Center by the New York Philharmonic in 1999.

His Blues Symphony, premiered in in 2009 by the Atlanta Symphony, was recorded live in 2019 by The Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Cristian Măcelaru. It paints a story of American music through generations, rich with changing musical color, multicultural rhythms, and yes, the blues.

“At the beginning," he says, “I used the flutes and piccolos to be like fife and drums. Then I juxtapose the flutes to the fiddles; that's the beginning of the American tradition of fiddling and flutes. I bring the brass in later; the brass kind of band movement, even though it grew, was not as big until the middle of the 19th century.”

“Each movement has a kind of instrumental relationship,” he says. “I use the English horn sometimes, tipping my hat to Dvorak, with The New World Symphony, and the sound of the Negro spiritual."

"And with the ragtime movement, I brought the three instruments from the New Orleans front line: the trombone, the clarinet and the trumpet.”

It’s a symphony of American dreams - infused with the feeling of the blues - which, Wynton reminds us, is part of the American story. “We all have it in life. And if you come from this culture, and you're a certain age you’ve heard it your entire life. If you like rock and roll, or popular music or TV shows -- Batman is a blues,” he says, laughing. “You could go on and on about songs that are blues.”

Blues Symphony Track List:

Movement I: Born in Hope

Movement II: Swimming in Sorrow

Movement III: Reconstruction Rag

Movement IV: Southwestern Shakedown

Movement V: Big City Breaks

Movement VI: Danzon y Mambo, Choro y Samba

Movement VII: Dialogue in Democracy

Check out the full interview with Wynton Marsalis about the blues, music and life.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.