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A slightly different crowd – a bit younger and a bit hipper than usual – nearly filled the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall Thursday night, drawn there for a guest performance by celebrity saxophonist Branford Marsalis with the Eugene Symphony.

Marsalis, here in town for a five-day residency with the orchestra, charmed the crowd from the moment he appeared on stage, playing a sweet and effortless rendition of Jacques Ibert’s Concertino de camera for alto saxophone and orchestra in the first half of the program, and coming back in the second for John Williams’ Escapades for alto saxophone and orchestra.

With the musicians under the baton of guest conductor Christian Knapp, the program was slightly different from usual, too – closer to pop or jazz than to the usual mix of Beethoven, Brahms and Bach we all know so well.

Knapp conducted with a light but energetic touch, always on top of the music and the musicians, and graceful and fun for the audience to watch; his best work, I think, came with a deftly performed set of symphonic dances from West Side Story that closed the program (though I’m afraid that now I’ll be humming bits of the music for the next week).

Hearing Marsalis on sax was like sipping whiskey and honey; his best opportunity to shine came in a cadenza in the third movement of the Ibert, and his sound filled the cavernous Silva Hall with a single perfect voice.

The Williams piece was less convincing to me, possibly because I’m not a huge fan of Williams’ work, but the audience loved it, and I was obviously outvoted.

A nice surprise was John Harbison’s Remembering Gatsby: Foxtrot for orchestra; in the short, humorous work, a foxtrot seemed to struggle to break musically free of a traditionally classical sound.

Nice work, all around, and a pleasant evening for all.

The photo above shows Marsalis on Tuesday talking to students at a master class he gave for the jazz bands at Shasta Middle School and Willamette and South high schools.

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