Jazz meets Beethoven at SMSO concert

Pianist Larry Schanker joins the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra on Sunday night for “Beethoven and All That Jazz.”

BERRIEN SPRINGS — At first glance, mixing jazz with Ludwig van Beethoven sounds like a task that only the most dedicated arranger would ever tackle.

But for pianist Larry Schanker, the challenge of bending those genres – along with blues, gospel and rock – inspired “Concerto for Jazz Piano,” the four-movement piece he’ll perform Sunday with the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra.

“The challenge, for me, was to write the notes so that they would sound right in whatever idiom we’re working with,” Schanker said. “A lot of it has to do with the phrasing and articulation that I put into the music.”

Sunday’s concert also will give Schanker the chance to revisit a piece the SMSO commissioned in 2011, which naturally required some adjustments on his part, he said.

“I’m excited to play it again, as part of (SMSO Music Director) Robin Fountain’s final season – I’ve been working hard on it for a few months. I really had to relearn it as a pianist – I did play it in 2011, but obviously, I needed to do quite a bit of work,” Schanker said. “It’s fun to approach it, as a piano player, as if someone else was the composer. It’s certainly the biggest piece I’ve ever composed.”

The concert also coincides with a major personal milestone for Schanker, his 60th birthday.

His other notable pieces have included “Fantasia For Drumline and Orchestra” – which the SMSO performed in 2014 with the Benton Harbor High School and Boys & Girls Clubs drumlines – and a series of fanfares inspired by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

“It’s really a great feeling, to perform in front of the orchestra, and have one’s music performed by great musicians,” Schanker said. “This is definitely a good way to celebrate.”

The piece runs half an hour, consisting of four movements that blend everything “from Oscar Peterson, to (Sergei) Rachmaninoff, to TV music of the 1970s, to European film music, to ragtime and gospel,” Schanker says in his program notes. “My goal was to bring these styles into a coherent whole that would be enjoyable for the musicians to play and entertaining for the audience to listen to.”

As an example, he cites one section that features three percussionists, instead of a standard drumkit.

“I really wanted to accomplish this, writing for an orchestra as an orchestra, and not cheat by having a traditional jazz combo, kind of accompanying the orchestra,” Schanker said. “And I think I was successful in that.”

In other cases, Schanker opted to blend several different genres, like his opening movement, which has a Romantic concerto quality, “though it’s clearly jazz, as soon as you hear the piano come in,” he said.

The eclecticism doesn’t stop there.

“(The first movement) has all sorts of influences, including ’70s detective show music. It’s funny to think about that – that was a big part of my youth,” Schanker said, laughing. “And I hear it in this piece. You listen to ‘Hawaii Five-O,’ it’s amazing what (music) was behind those episodes.”

For greater contrast, “Concerto For Jazz Piano” also deploys dramatic tempo changes, shifting from the accelerated clip of the first and fourth movements, to waltz and blues rhythms in the middle sections, he said.

“It’s got a down and dirty feel to it, which is not often something that you’ll hear in a symphonic concert hall,” Schanker said.

Sunday’s program closes with the SMSO performing Carl Maria von Weber’s “Der Freischütz Overture” and Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 7,” which will occur before and after Schanker’s performance with them.

Weber is considered one of the first major Romantic composers in classical music. He was active during the same time as Beethoven, from roughly he late 1790s to the 1820s. According to Weber, he intended his overture to contrast “the life of the hunter” with “the rule of the demonic powers.”

Beethoven’s symphony premiered in 1813, at the University of Vienna during a benefit concert for Austrian and Bavarian soldiers wounded in the struggle against Napoleon at the battle of Nanau, an SMSO release notes. The concert proved to be a success, and was performed three times.

Schanker looks forward to seeing how “Concerto For Jazz Piano” fares with the Howard audience, having already passed its first, and arguably, toughest test – the SMSO musicians tasked with bringing its vision alive onstage.

“Nothing makes a composer feel better than to see the musicians smiling while they’re playing, and they seemed to be having a really good time the other night,” Schanker said. “And I just felt real good about that.”