This is the best I could come up with; Branford Marsalis and marc faris outside the beautiful Biddle Music Building, without question the ugliest building on Duke's East Campus.
I'm brutally unqualified to write on anything classical except maybe ecclesiastical choral music, but here goes anyway ... There's a twist, I s'pose.
Let's start with a cliche: "Jazz is anything you can tap your foot to." It's a quote which is frequently (and probably apocryphally) attributed to Duke Ellington. Jazz is also what Durham resident Branford Marsalis is best known for. I tried my damnedest to tap my foot to the two works he played with Duke's Ciompi Quartet last night. Two conclusions, which I didn't really need all this artifice to say: One, it wasn't jazz, but two, it was pretty interesting.
(Aside: Having been in Page two nights in a row, have you ever noticed how different the chatter before a classical concert sounds as compared to before a jazz concert? Similarly high-brow, and yet the overall sound is very different.)
I had a somewhat difficult time concentrating for the first half of the concert, a Mozart divertimento and a string quartet by Mendelssohn, with the previous night's (mis)adventures post-Masada still working themselves out. I will say this: There is never enough viola. On the other hand, violist Jonathan Bagg sounded a bit scratchy in some places, not quite achieving a pure tone. First violinist Eric Pritchard, meanwhile, is fun to watch--he always seems ready to leap out of his chair, and lo and behold, no sooner had they hit the final note of the Mozart than he did just that. The Mendelssohn was denser musically than the Mozart and I liked it better, especially the playful bandying back and forth of a riff in the adagio non lento, the second movement.
The second half was composed (ha!) of a premiere (marc faris' Mountain Music) and a repeat of another work Branford and Ciompi premiered in 2003 (Mark Kuss' Reminiscence). Branford was on soprano for both. Imagine if Trane hadn't taken up that horn--Branford might not play it, either! He has a beautiful, clear, core tone. I very much liked faris' piece. It reminded me, actually, of Wayne Horvitz's Four + 1 Ensemble, especially the string vs. horn thang. The work was lyrical, but seemed to be trying very hard to remain a bit spiky, as in an early section with cello and viola pizzicatti where the music lurched rather than flowed forward. What faris was going for, perhaps, but a little unsettling, and it seemed as though Marsalis and the violins really wanted to overcome the jolting low end and surge forward. I liked the work, and could really feel the Appalachian aura the composer described in his program notes, although my own personal conception of the Blue Ridge might not be so mighty and aggressive. Kuss' piece, meanwhile was cozy and lyrical, but overall didn't make much impression on me.
The sax-string interplay is quite pleasant--the tone and register of the soprano meant Marsalis could blend when he wanted and fade into the ensemble. The rest of the time, he seemed to be playing--well, not against the others, nor with them, nor completely on top, as a soloist. The sax line seemed to roll above, below and with the strings, lapping about fluidly.
I'm always struck by the different sound of modern harmony, something I wish I understood more. Where the Mozart and Mendelssohn seem closed, a layer of glass covering them--even the airy, pleasant Mozart--the twin Marc/ks' pieces seem to have big holes in the harmony, big enough to drive a musical truck through. It's not a hole in the score; there's just a space there, and I don't know how well I'm describing it. Here's hoping it makes at least a modicum of sense.