100 Years of Jazz and Symphony

Syncopate, Bounce, and Swing!
In Rightness in the Rhythm we will explore the connections between jazz and classical…from ragtime to Rhapsody in Blue and beyond! Special guests Marcus Roberts Trio joins Chicago Sinfonietta with their unique take on Rhapsody in Blue that is injected with driving rhythm and stunning improvisation. Check out the digital guide to learn more about the artists and music featured on the program!


The Marcus Roberts Trio is known for its virtuosic style and entirely new approach to jazz trio performance. While most jazz trios have the piano front and center, all members of the Marcus Roberts Trio share equally in shaping the direction of the music by changing its tempo, mood, texture, or form at any time. And they do this with lightning quick musical reflexes and creative imaginations. The trio is known for having almost telepathic communication on the stage. And more than a few concert goers have been heard to say that it sounds like a lot more than three people up there on the stage!

The Marcus Roberts Trio believes in ‘letting the music take over’ and the result is a powerfully rhythmic and melodic sound that is filled with dynamic contrast. One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching this trio perform is that it is so evident that these three musicians are really having fun playing together.

Deanna Tham, 16/17 Chicago Sinfonietta Assistant Conductor

Project Inclusion Conducting Freeman Fellow, Deanna Tham is the newly appointed Music Director of the Louisville Youth Orchestra. She was previously the Music Director of the Boise Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. She has additionally conducted the Boise Philharmonic and Ballet Idaho, and Opera Idaho. Tham most recently worked with renowned conductors Marin Alsop and James Ross at the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival. Tham has served as the cover conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, where she also received a Professional Studies Certificate from the Cleveland Institute of Music in Orchestral Conducting studying with Maestro Carl Topilow. She has had her work with the National Music Festival and Maestro Richard Rosenberg featured on National Public Radio as well as American Public Media working with some of the top professional musicians and teachers from around the world.

Scott Joplin

(1867 - 1917) An African-American composer and pianist, Joplin achieved fame for his ragtime compositions and was dubbed the "King of Ragtime Writers". During his brief career, he wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. Joplin's second opera Treemonisha (1911), was intended to be both a serious opera in the European tradition, and an entertaining piece of music. Sadly, the opera was virtually unheard of until its first complete performance in 1972.

Michael Abels

(1962) An American composer, Abels was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and studied at the University of Southern California. Primarily a composer of large forms, Abels has applied his skillful compositional approach to over 20 orchestral works. Always a thoughtful communicator, Abels cleverly reinvents classical styles while adapting popular idioms. Abels has been described as a composer with a gift for “[juxtaposing] elements unleashed in an irresistible display of orchestral color” (Cleveland Plain Dealer), who possesses a “keen ear and a deft ability to adapt structural elements from popular music into the symphonic idiom,” (Houston Chronicle).

George Gershwin

(1898 – 1937) An American composer and pianist, Gershwin's compositions spanned both popular and classical genres, and his most popular melodies are widely known. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924), An American in Paris (1928), and the opera, Porgy and Bess (1935).

Listen and Read

Any discussion of the origins of jazz must include the piano syncopations of ragtime, the most popular music of the late 19th century. Ragtime itself is likely the first formally written music that has its roots in African-American culture, most notably spirituals and plantation work songs. Scott Joplin was not only the most popular ragtime composer, he was also its most ambitious one. During his brief career, he wrote 44 original rags, one ragtime ballet, and two operas. One of his first pieces, the "Maple Leaf Rag", became ragtime's first and most influential hit, and has been recognized as the archetypal rag.

Overture from Treemonisha, however, was not a hit for Joplin. Called a “ragtime opera”, it was glowingly reviewed in sheet music form, but its first public performance in 1915 was most emphatically not, and it essentially disappeared for nearly 6 decades. The score was rediscovered in 1970 and a world premiere performance by the Atlanta Symphony and Morehouse College Glee Club followed in 1972. That performance was called a "semimiracle" by music historian Gilbert Chase. In 1976, Scott Joplin was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for contributions to American music. The Overture from Treemonishaleaves Joplin’s signature piano behind but the unmistakable sounds of ragtime are ever present.

Negro spirituals, along with the moans and hollers of work songs, form the foundation of the blues, which in turn is a key element in the development of jazz. And so, with our second selection of the evening, composer Michael Abels takes a form that grew out of a folkloric setting and applies formal compositional technique to it. In the case of , American Variations on Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,, he has found a tune that is almost universally known by its first few lines, and one that holds an important place in the Civil Rights movement. Swing Low Sweet Chariot,, by some accounts, dates back to 1865, but it was first recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909.

, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, is structured in a call and response fashion: Lead singer, answering chorus, lead singer, answering chorus. In order to be ‘singable’, it needs to have an unmistakable melody that is easily grasped, and this makes it a good candidate for the classical variation: Take that simple melody and extend it through transformation, always holding on to the core, yet spinning off in different directions and colors. In Abels’ composition, you have a color palate and that perhaps owe something to Aaron Copland, a sly acknowledgement that Copland’s ‘American’ sound was his utilization of folkloric forms like the spiritual. The rhythmic pulse, meanwhile, hints at swing and jazz.

By the time we reach George Gershwin in the progression of jazz, we have reached a place where composers are using jazz itself as an inspiration. While the Joplin and Abels works are period and modern takes on the roots of jazz, An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue emerge during the late 1920s Jazz Age, a decade after Jelly Roll Morton started refining ragtime into something new and just a couple of years after Louis Armstrong and King Oliver hit Chicago.

Other than Duke Ellington, George Gershwin was the 20th century’s foremost composer bringing the jazz to the concert stage. Their difference is one of perspective. Gershwin borrows from jazz to compose symphonic music while Ellington starts as a jazz man.

An American in Paris will be played straight in this performance, all of its elegance intact as Gershwin wrote it. On Rhapsody in Blue , this most famous of all Gershwin melodies will get roughed up just a bit by returning to its jazz inspiration courtesy of the Marcus Roberts Trio. Growling blue notes will emerge and the Roberts’ rhythm section will goose things along with more urgency. Most importantly, though, improvisation will be back as Roberts’ trio and soloists from the orchestra work on their own variations on Gershwin’s theme, conjuring the spirits of Armstrong, Morton and even Ellington.

Leonard Bernstein’s career straddled both Broadway show tunes (i.e. popular music) and more earnestly classical music. Like George Gershwin before him, he is an American composer who was profoundly influenced by the urban rhythms of jazz. When the Broadway smash hit On the Town premiered in 1944, the prevailing notion of jazz was that of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman, the big band stars that to modern ears conjure up a nostalgia shaped by the generation that experienced World War Two. Indeed, the story of the musical is that of three sailors looking for love (or something like it) while on shore leave in New York City. The play is an energetic love letter to the Big Apple, and by extension the very thing “our boys” were fighting against fascism to protect.

Bernstein later condensed three of the play’s numbers into a concert suite that amounts to a tribute to the fantasy of version of NYC. The swing rhythms of big band figure greatly into the upbeat sections, and you can almost visualize jitterbugging dancers in the streets.

Join us pre-concert and during intermission, show off your chops, boogie woogie, and PLAY as we close the season with a wail in our very own Sinfonietta jazz club. Learn about Chicago's rich jazz history and see archives from DuSable Museum , make an instrument, and try your skills at improvisation. Plus, jump in and join a live jazz combo for a jam session!

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