I worked with Branford Marsalis on a couple of TV projects, and I learned that he is a very driven man, one who wants to prove that he can do anything. Tonight he stretched boundaries by performing two orchestral pieces for alto saxophone. Tenor is his normal horn; I'd never heard him play alto before. The two pieces were the Glazunov concerto and a rarely-heard Sonata by Schulhoff.
Branford's playing from a technical standpoint was impeccable. He really learned these pieces perfectly, which is a necessity for a crossover artist who wishes to prove that he is capable in a different idiom. His tone quality was perfect, like a fine aged wine.
However, both pieces lack drama, and neither inspired the emotional playing that makes Branford such a good musician. The Glazunov in particular is a very dry piece that is more intellectual than emotional. The Schulhoff is a jazzy piece, but the orchestra had problems. The orchestration is weird enough; a small brass section, drum kit, two(?) basses, and a large woodwind section do not really blend well.
To make things worse, this small orchestra stayed in the basic large orchestra seating, which put the brass about 75' from the soloist. They never seemed together. They also never really got into the swing very well. The drummer did not help. Neither did the acoustics. Yesterday we sat quite close, but today we were further back, and the orchestra was still quite dry. The tent is open behind the orchestra, and of course there is no back to the tent either (so that people on the lawn can see and hear). There is a simple fix for this; the Boston Symphony has done this for at least three decades at the Esplanade: add reverb. It might seem like an odd idea, but without it, an orchestra does not seem like an orchestra. There is amplification, although I think it is underutilized, so it would be easy to add some concert hall to the sound of the orchestra.
Nonetheless, Branford sounded great, and the crowd very much enjoyed his playing.
Things changed drastically after the intermission. Conductor Andrey Boreyko led the orchestra quite well in the two suites from Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev. The entire performance was fantastic. Boreyko is a very emotional conductor and drew the best out of the orchestra. The encore, from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, was just as good, and a highlight of the evening.