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May 13, 2010

Mobtown Modern delivers sizzling jazz version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"

The modest repertoire niche of classical pieces transformed into jazz vehicles got substantially enriched Wednesday night when Mobtown Modern premiered Darryl Brenzel's sizzling version of Stravinsky's revolutionary ballet score, "The Rite of Spring," with a kick-ass band. This was, on many levels, an exceptional event, and it was good to see a sizable turnout at the Metro Gallery for it. (I wonder how many of the people there were fans of the Stravinsky original; I wonder, too, if that matters.)

For me, much of the fun was discovering how Brenzel managed to preserve the rich flavor of the "Rite," the familiar harmonic tang and rhythmic punch. If anything, he may have taken on too much -- his arrangement is quite longer than the original, adding up to an hour and change. There were a couple times during the performances when I felt the coolness factor starting to wear off, the tautness starting to loosen, but only a couple., and the feeling quickly passed 

In the end, this turned out to be high-class jazz (and some rock), a brilliant combination of musical imagination, technical talent and chutzpah.

The Frederick-based Brenzel did not merely transcribe notes from symphony orchestra to a 17-piece ensemble of saxes, trumpets, trombones, guitar, piano, bass and drums to create his "Rite of Swing." He treated the 14 titled passages in Stravinsky's through-composed score as

separate numbers. Each one retained characteristics of the source material, from intricate chordal writing to tricky rhythmic jolts, but also allowed room for thematic development and improvisation. (Someone at the Frederick News-Post dubbed Brenzel's work as "The Re-Write of Spring" -- I wish I had thought of that.)

Several sections, notably "Spring Rounds," "Mystic Circles of the Young Girls" and "Ritual Action of the Elders," really hit the spot. The effect was uncanny, at once fully evocative of the "Rite" we know, and yet totally fresh in color and atmosphere. The very end of the piece -- the unexpected, wispy woodwind solo just before the last whomping chord -- didn't translate so well into the new version; I wanted something with a bit more impact and finality. 

But that was a minor thing, especially given all the energy pouring out from the Mobtown Jazz Orchestra. (You might spot those same players in the Jazz Ambassadors of the U.S. Army Field Band. Brenzel, who recently retired from that group, joined in on sax for the "Rite" finale.) There might have been one off-kilter entrance, but the sheer tightness of the playing was still very impressive, the expressive force behind it even more so.

A recording is planned. It should be a knockout.

Meanwhile, all you folks at symphony orchestras worrying about how to engage audiences and liven up concert formats -- here's a pitch: Program the original "Rite of Spring" on the first half, then put Brenzel's version on the second. Such a double-barrel roof-raiser sure sounds awesome to me.


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:09 PM | | Comments (5)


Thank you so much for those kind words. And the Frederick News Post didn't coin "Re-write of Spring" by the way, that was something I threw their way. So you were beat by the arranger, not the paper. :-)

Oh, good. I feel much better. TIM

I'm sure that I'll be purchasing this recording!

In a similar, equally-impressive vein, be sure to look here:

for the two items, "Mass Transformation" & "Bruckner V. improvised."

I have the Bruckner 5th recording and LOVE it!!!

I reviewed this too. Spoiler alert: I also really enjoyed it.

I always knew you were a gentleman of great judgment and taste. TIM

There's an old LP by Don Sebesky, with Jon Faddis, where he gives the Rite of Spring the jazz treatment. It's a great idea. I don't know why jazz doesn't raid the classics more regularly.

Re the Sebesky arrangement: Not to take anything away from Don Sebesky, a fabulous arranger, but he did a mere 8 minute arrangement for Hubert Laws on an old CTI record from the seventies. A much smaller group and he basically took a few themes and created a setting for Hubert to shine. A good recording, but not anywhere near doing the entire Rite.

I think the tendency in jazz is to compose one's own tunes, for better or worse. Some really great players are not good writers. Arrangers tend to arrange what they are hired to arrange. More commissions from places like Mobtown Modern could result in more of the classical cannon becoming a part of the jazz cannon. Certainly the music is as rich as Tin Pan Alley, a source or so much jazz rep.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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