When the Juilliard Orchestra and Juilliard Jazz Orchestra share the Carnegie Hall stage on February 23, it will be a collaborative effort long in the making.
It started in fall 2019, when conductor David Robertson led a joint reading of Wynton Marsalis’ Swing Symphony with both ensembles; in spring 2020, Robertson and several jazz and classical students had another reading—this one virtual—leading to a performance of an excerpt at Juilliard’s Virtual Gala that fall.
The Carnegie collaboration is the first-ever between these Juilliard orchestras. First-year master’s violinist Emma Richman (BM ’21, violin) and second-year jazz master's trombonist Jacob Melsha (BM ’21, jazz studies), both part of the Swing Symphony project since its beginning, discussed preparing for the big event with the Juilliard Journal, and their remarks are excerpted here.
At Carnegie, Swing Symphony will be heard in full, part of an all-American program including Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto and three dances from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town. Premiered in 2010—it was commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic—it’s the third symphony by Wynton Marsalis (trumpet, ’81), director of Juilliard Jazz. Comprising seven movements, Swing Symphony is, Marsalis has said, a meditation on American ideals and optimism, illustrated by movement titles like “All-American Pep” and “The Low Down (Up on High).”
Working with David Robertson
Jacob Melsha: Looking back to our first reading of it, two years ago—I was so excited about it. I grew up in St. Louis, my parents heard David Robertson conduct the Saint Louis Symphony in Swing Symphony, and I had worked with him in youth orchestra there. To play this piece with a conductor from my hometown who I’d worked with, with friends I’d grown up with, and written by the guy who’s the reason I’m at Juilliard—it’s so many roads and avenues crossing at once.
Emma Richman: I’ve also known David Robertson for a long time. He conducted the National Youth Orchestra when I was in it. Having him at Juilliard is full circle for many people.
A New Kind of Symphony
Jacob: Do you feel like a lot of this music was particularly jazz influenced? Could you tell it’s written by a jazz musician?
Emma: Sure! It has a lot of jazz rhythms and bluesy chords. I remember looking over the part and thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is a simple saxophone lick, and I can’t figure out how to play it on the violin and I’m going to sit down next to these jazz guys and say, ‘what are all these flats?’” It’s not a classical symphony with jazz harmonies. It’s a jazz symphony.
Jacob: You don’t usually see that instrumentation. To have one saxophone in a symphony is a rarity, let alone five. And six or seven trombones. And seven or eight trumpets.
Emma: I love that it’s not the symphony orchestra on one side and jazz orchestra on the other—it turns the whole orchestra into a giant jazz band. It’s not jazz vs. classical—it’s the Swing Symphony.
Kevin Filipski is Juilliard’s program editor.
For more information about the February 23 Carnegie Hall concert, visit juilliard.edu.