Boulder Phil and Marcus Roberts Trio celebrate the return to live performances

“Gershwin Celebration” at Macky hits the right notes for a festive event

By Peter Alexander Jan. 23 at 12:20 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic and the Marcus Roberts Trio both returned to a live stage last night (Jan. 22) for the first time in two years, to present “A Gershwin Celebration” in Macky Auditorium. And it was a celebration for certain.

Two works by Gershwin were on the program: An American in Paris, and the Piano Concerto in F with the trio—Marcus Roberts, piano, Jason Marsalis, drums, and Rodney Jordan, bass—as a solo ensemble with the orchestra. The interpretation of Gershwin’s concerto, which Roberts first did with conductor Seiji Ozawa nearly 20 years ago, has become something of a specialty for the trio. They did it with the Boulder Phil once before, in conductor Michael Butterman’s first season with the orchestra 15 years ago.

We should be grateful that Butterman decided to return to that experience. The program, and especially the performance with the trio, hit all the right notes for a festive event. It was brilliantly creative, it was fun, it was musical art on a very high level.

Mar us Roberts Trio rehearsing with the Boulder Phil. Photo by Peter Alexander.

The performance was live-streamed from Macky to anyone who had bought a ticket. I had the privilege of first attending the rehearsal yesterday morning, so that I could hear how the trio put their interpretation and interpolated solos together with the orchestra, and watching the live stream in the evening to hear how it all fit together.

One advantage of “attending” the concert by live stream is that you can see things that are not easily seen from seats in the hall—the very busy percussionists, for example, and who is playing the solos. That is very much a worthwhile pleasure. Since COVID, streaming is common, since it allows people to take in a concert without being in a crowd. Let’s hope streaming becomes normal, as it gives access to people who otherwise would not be able to attend. 

And it give us all the opportunity to hear performances from around the world, building a larger, shared musical culture.

The program opened with An American in Paris, which has earned a place in the orchestral repertoire—and in American audience’s hearts. It’s not fair to “review” a streamed performance because as a listener I am at the mercy of the sound engineers and the speakers on my desktop. But Butterman and the Boulder Phil clearly gave a fluid, polished performance.

For the Concerto, the orchestra played almost entirely what Gershwin wrote. When playing with the orchestra, Roberts observed, if he did not exactly reproduce, what Gershwin wrote in the piano part. At times he spun off from Gershwin’s line—but Gershwin did the same.

The Marcus Roberts Trio

There were also “breaks” for the jazz trio when the orchestra sat out and turned the performance over to the trio. These moments were, for me, the most joyous parts of the concert, because all three members of the trio are just so darned good. It was delightful to hear Roberts work bits of Gershwin into the multi-hued fabric of his improvisations, and to witness the exchanges among three musicians who know each other so well. Like any tight jazz group, whatever direction Roberts went, the others were with him.

Hearing both the rehearsal and the concert, it was not hard to find the essence of both classical and jazz styles. “We want to make sure that [audiences] understand the grandeur and beauty and structural logic that classical music has,” Roberts told me earlier, “and the freedom of improvisation and the spontaneity of jazz.”

Both were evident in Macky. The “grandeur of classical music” was present in the full orchestral passages of the concerto, which frame and culminate the solo passages. Of course those grandiose passages were the same in the morning and in the evening; that’s classical music. 

The improvised, jazz passages, however, were not the same; in their exuberant unpredictability they showed the “spontaneity of jazz”—and therein lies is the true greatness of the art form. The true greatness of Roberts’s performance of the Concerto in F is in bringing the two together.

As an encore, the trio alone played their version of another Gershwin staple, “I Got Rhythm,” which is both a nod to the composer’s variations for piano and orchestra on “I Got Rhythm” and recognition of the place the tune’s chord progression has taken in jazz history. Here the trio was playful, trading riffs at the beginning and the end, and giving a welcome chance for Marsalis on drums and Jordan on bass to have their own solos.

They all killed it. It was a dazzling demonstration of what we have missed for the past two years, and an exhilarating end to the celebration.

# # # # #

The Boulder Phil and the Marcus Roberts Trio will repeat their performance of “A Gershwin Celebration” this afternoon, at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 23, at the Lone Tree Arts Center. You may purchase tickets for that live performance here.