October 12, 2020. The clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, winner of a dozen Grammy awards, has nothing but superlatives for Wayne Marshall, chief conductor of the WDR Funkhausorchester in Cologne. D’Rivera’s contribution to Born to Play—Marshall’s swan song after a decade with the orchestra—complements the main course, works by George Gershwin.
“As a collaborator," says D'Rivera, "Wayne takes everything he does and it’s like he would do it for himself. He becomes part of the project, which is the idea. He’s an excellent pianist and one of the great contemporary organists. He’s a human octopus. You don’t find that type of musician every day.”
Gershwin’s music changed Wayne Marshall’s life as a child in the UK, so it’s no surprise that the conductor frequents the American composer’s work with purpose and acknowledgement. There are moments of elation, elegance, and exaltation in the performances of Gershwin’s Rhapsody No. 2 and Ferde Grofe’s original orchestration of Rhapsody in Blue.
Marshall leaves plenty of room for musical bombast in the overtures to "Girl Crazy" and "Strike Up the Band," and his treatment on Gershwin’s "Of Thee I Sing" feels like a cheeky nod to the caricature and amusement of America’s political landscape.
Now, back to Paquito D’Rivera, a Cuban expat and American composer gifted with his own brand of humoresque. “I was so pleased to see that he included my piece and put me next to Gershwin. It was quite an honor,” says D’Rivera referring to his spirited work, The Elephant and the Clown.
“Many years ago, as a kid, I used to work on TV in Havana with a trio of Spanish musical clowns. They were three brothers, the Aragón brothers. Gaby, Fofó, and Miliki. They went to Cuba for a week and stayed for 30 years. Fofó was a prankster. When Fofó died, I found an anecdote that his brother wrote.
One day, on a tour through the Cuban countryside, Fofó hid the elephant from the trainer. How is it possible to hide an elephant? The trainer was Hungarian. He spoke with a heavy accent—worse than me! So Fofó encouraged him to make the attest at the police station. The trainer went to the guardia that day and told them he'd been robbed. The police then asked if someone took his wallet. He said no, they stole my elephant.
“That was such a funny story. So I wrote this piece, The Elephant and the Clown.”
Born to Play also includes Argentinian pianist and composer Daniel Freiberg’s Brazilian Fantasy arrangements for orchestra and jazz ensemble, a medley of works by Bossa Nova master Antonio Carlos Jobim, composer Jacob do Bandolim, and Brazil’s father of the “roda de choro,” Pixinguinha.
“I have had the opportunity to work with some very fine conductors,” says D’Rivera. “And some of them were terrible, too. Wayne is so dedicated and so versatile.”
Throughout Born to Play, one discovers a vitality and heartbeat to the program, and that’s a testament to Marshall’s collaborative approach.
“He's got a great sense of authority without being imposing. That’s very difficult to achieve," says D’Rivera. "Many conductors have a dictatorial approach, and sometimes it’s justified with undisciplined musicians. In the case of Wayne, you can feel the authority because he knows what he’s doing. And when he’s not sure, he isn’t afraid to sit at the piano and ask, 'What should we do?' He doesn’t feel intimidated by asking and applying that knowledge to the process. He has immense patience. People say the stick doesn’t sound. It definitely sounds with Wayne Marshall.”