A youngish man in a jacket over a white T-shirt
Composer Peter S. Shin’s “Relapse” is inspired by a melodic fragment drawn from the Korean folk song “Arirang.” Courtesy: Berkeley Symphony Orchestra

The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 2023-24 season by taking a spin around the voluptuous contours of the nation’s musical landscape with “American Kaleidoscope,” a program that sees possibilities around every corner.

Embarking from Zellerbach Hall at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 15, the orchestra opens the evening with Samuel Barber’s unabashedly lyrical and telegraphic “Essay for Orchestra No. 2.”  Building on Joseph Young’s commitment to drawing jazz masters into the orchestra’s orbit, the Marcus Roberts Trio joins the orchestra for legendary Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson’s “Yamekraw: A Negro Rhapsody,” which was introduced by Johnson’s protégé, Fats Waller, in Carnegie Hall in 1928.  

American Kaleidoscope, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Sunday, Oct. 15, 4 p.m.

A working unit since 1995, Roberts’ trio features the insuperable New Orleans rhythmic tandem of bassist Roland Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis, the youngest sibling of the illustrious clan. The pianist has been performing “Yamekraw” since Marin Alsop recruited him to perform Johnson’s rhapsody with Concordia, the 50-piece orchestra focusing on contemporary music (his first orchestral outing). 

In an interesting case of putting the response before the call, “Yamekraw” precedes the program’s rousing closer, Gershwin’s beloved “Rhapsody in Blue,” a landmark in integrating jazz and European classical music. Johnson, an ingenious composer and one of the most influential and revered jazz pianists of the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s, composed “Yamekraw” in response to “Rhapsody In Blue,” which had premiered Feb. 12, 1924, at Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall. 

Johnson and Gershwin spent a considerable amount of time listening to each other in informal Harlem settings, and the incident-filled “Yamekraw,” inspired by a Black neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia, comes at the jazz/classical from the other side of the equation. Programming the pieces together would be a revelatory move at any time, but Young is getting a jump on the centennial of “Rhapsody,” right in front of the orchestra’s previous guest pianist Lara Downes, who premieres a radical reimagining of the work by Puerto Rican composer Edmar Colón Oct. 21 with the SFCM Orchestra.

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Gershwin has been a touchstone for the Roberts Trio throughout the group’s long run. They’d already forged a preternatural bandstand connection in 2003 when the composer’s follow up to “Rhapsody” seemed to open up new communicative territory. The trio premiered Roberts’ new arrangement of Gershwin’s 1925 “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra” with the New Japan Philharmonic, “and I thought ‘People need to hear this!’” Marsalis told me in a 2010 interview. “That added another dimension. I think the reason why the group has lasted so long is that the music has always changed.”  

“American Kaleidoscope” also features a recent work by a living composer, Peter S. Shin’s “Relapse.” Inspired by a melodic fragment drawn from the iconic Korean folk song “Arirang,” the 2012 piece is an attempt to survey and reintegrate both sides of Shin’s Korean-American identity. Set to a steady tempo, “Relapse” builds to conjunction “where two distinct rhythms — one in the horns and the other in the trombones to create a pendulum stage effect — work against each other to eventually converge into a singular, gigantic orchestral hit after hit right before the folk song reveals itself in its original form for the first and only time,” Shin wrote in an email. 

Sandwiched between Johnson and Gershwin, “Relapse” expands a musical conversation that has unfolded over the past century. Shin is well aware of significance of the programmatic sequence, appreciating BSO’s “efforts in broadening what is considered to be quintessentially American music,” he wrote. 

“Orchestral works by Asian composers are usually relegated to Lunar New Year slots and rarely performed, so to be programmed under this theme declaring that my music is also equally American and belongs here is meaningful to me.”

Shin and Roberts will discuss the work further in a pre-concert conversation that I’ll be leading on stage. 

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....