in performance: the lexington philharmonic with byron stripling

byron stripling.

The Lexington Philharmonic spent the final hours of 2017 in glorious disguise. With a guest conductor, a heavily altered instrumental design and an exclusively non-classical program, it operated very much as a jazz orchestra. Given the “Jazz Night” theme promoted for last night’s Opera House performance, that was to be somewhat expected. But instead of a standard pops-style presentation, this was a complete, evening-only makeover.

First off, musical director Scott Terrell yielded the conductor’s podium to Ohio jazzman Byron Stripling, whose boisterous spirit set the mood for the evening the moment he walked onstage. But by juggling duties as vocalist and trumpeter (the first with an operatic, deep and exact tenor; the second with similarly precise and expressive tonality), as well as serving as emcee and, to an extent, raconteur, Stripling’s time at the podium turned out to be somewhat limited.

But this was a very different Philharmonic in operation. By deemphasizing percussion and much of the woodwinds outside of saxophones, the orchestra was dominated by strings and brass with the further unorthodox addition of a piano-bass-drums rhythm section to propel a very purposeful sense of swing. While that obviously changed the entire musical fabric of the orchestra, it didn’t compromise the program’s abundant joy and luster.

Though Stripling, Miche Braden and tap dancer Ted Louis Levy traded off vocal duties, one of the evening’s highlights was when the jazz orchestration was let loose on its own to explore to the gorgeous dynamics within Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” With so much of the performance devoted to Jeff Tyzik-arranged swing classics immortalized by Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, hearing the Ellington chestnut’s more subtle beauty nicely showcased the range of the realigned Philharmonic.

Stripling, Braden and Levy all had numerous standout moments. Stripling effortlessly channeled the blues-packed drive of the Calloway signature tune “Minnie the Moocher” while Braden offered a more regal sense of sass with the help of a hearty also saxophone solo from veteran Lexington jazzman Miles Osland (who played an integral part in the Philharmonic’s jazz transformation throughout the program) on the Bessie Smith/Billie Holiday popularized “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” Levy’s deft tap work also ignited a highly animated take on the Depression Era pick-me-up “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile.”

The vaudeville-style antics and attitude adopted between songs by the three guest artists wore thin at times, but that’s a minor quibble. The jazz age fun summoned by a performance that clearly took the Philharmonic way outside its comfort zone was largely shatterproof. Here’s hoping for another such detour before the next New Year is ushered in.



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