ArtsATL > Music > Behind the scenes: Team Marsalis and the status of Wynton’s “Blues Symphony”

Behind the scenes: Team Marsalis and the status of Wynton’s “Blues Symphony”

Last week, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and music director Robert Spano played about 18 minutes of new music composed by Wynton Marsalis — two movements from the planned “Blues Symphony,” billed as a 50-minute, seven-movement symphony that aims to explore the roots of American music. It was the third time the completed work’s world premiere has been postponed, and the ASO now says it will perform the complete work at a concert in January.

6a011570777493970b012875d07e84970c-800wi.jpgFor an ArtsCriticATL news article, confirmed by multiple sources inside the ASO, I wrote: “Marsalis apparently can’t finish writing it, and keeps missing his deadline. Two of the planned seven movements are completed and playable. Two more are in rough draft form. The rest is still in Marsalis’ head.”

Oh, well. Across the history of music, it has been rather common for a composer to work in fits and starts, to take longer than planned to write a big work, to revise, expand, discard, rework, edit and, sometimes, produce a masterpiece out of it all.

The day after the ASO concert, which I reviewed for the AJC, an interesting comment arrived on ArtsCriticATL to my earlier Marsalis post. A copyist, FYI, is usually someone who’ll take a composer’s hand-written notes and put it on paper, or into a computer program, so the score looks nice and clean and readable. (Taking bows, Spano and Marsalis at center stage. Photo by Jeff Roffman.)


                                                                                     Comment comes first, followed by my reply: 


Dear Mr. Ruhe,
My name is Jonathan Kelly.  I work with Mr. Marsalis as a copyist. I have the full score of the Blues Symphony complete with all seven movements.  The piece is not being played in it’s entirety because of a lack of rehearsal time, not because the piece has not been finished. I’ve spent 5 months of my life; day and night, working side by side Wynton. I’ve gone on two tours with him; 9 countries; 31 different cities, working on the music. So perhaps you can trust my first hand account; he is not “creatively paralyzed”.
I think that the premiere of the first two movements this week have shown that the great work of Mr. Robert Spano and the musicians of the ASO is going to lead to a very inspired performance in January.  I hope you and the good folks of Atlanta enjoy the hard work that Wynton and I have put in on this project.
Jonathan Kelly

Dear Mr. Kelly,

Thank you for your comment clarifying the status of Wynton Marsalis’ “Blues Symphony.” Since you are intimately connected to the score, I’ll take at face value what you say about all seven movements being complete. You don’t say if it is all orchestrated and made into parts for the musicians to play, or if the ASO has received a copy — (or when they received it) — but I’m happy to learn the work is finished. I’m eager to hear it all in January.

That said, I’m puzzled by your letter and your assertion that “a lack of rehearsal time” is the reason someone decided on two of seven.

The Atlanta Symphony had all along planned for a seven movement symphony of almost an hour’s duration, and set aside the necessary rehearsal time to tackle such a work. And the new Marsalis symphony was programmed alongside familiar works that the orchestra has played in recent seasons and knows well. So if the ASOhad received a completed copy of Marsalis’ seven-movement score before the start of the first rehearsal for that week’s program it would be a curious situation that the ASO not play it for the reasons you suggest. You’ve created a mystery where there was none before.

Given Wynton Marsalis’ popularity, and the growing prestige of his catalogue, I suspect this is a subject we’ll hear more about.

Thanks again for taking the time to write. I always find the workings of composers and the process of creativity a fascinating topic.

Best regards,


And the conversation continues in the COMMENTS section…

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