June 2024
In Pursuit
Inside a musical experiment with Henry Flurry and Jonathan Best

On a nice April evening I set up my bass in the big room at Trinity Presbyterian, trying to get ready for pretty much anything.

I’d got the call only a week or so before to join in a test reading of a piece co-written by Arizona Philharmonic Artistic Director Henry Flurry and my friend and sometimes collaborator Jonathan Best. Henry had told me that he and Jon had been working for years to blend Henry’s classical writing ideas with Jon’s improvisational experience to create something really new. The upshot at this point was the first two of what would become a three-movement concerto-style piece called In Pursuit.

Jonathan Best and Henry Flurry in the studio

“I always knew what the question was,” Henry told me later. “It’s difficult for the orchestra to sound like anything other than an orchestra. What happens when we mix Jonathan’s style on top of a centrally classical piece of music? What happens if we let everyone be themselves?”

Henry built his approach to this question with a smaller, chamber-style group, mixing players from both the classical and jazz musical traditions.

He explained that improvisation is far from foreign to what we now identify as classical European music. Rather it was “a standard feature up to around the Romantic period,” with composers relying on extemporaneous passages to expand on musical themes in the moment, and it’s generally accepted that there was no hard distinction between improvised and written music till the 15th century.

So while classical isn’t my bag personally, I was looking forward to a fresh experience. My parts were relatively simple, but I didn’t have a guide recording to give me an idea where my part would fit in.

It turned out that was just as well, because as I was getting settled in to warm up Henry let me know that two members of our little group would be unable to attend, and asked whether I might handle some cello cues as well. I went to work on some new pages while the rest of the band arrived. This isn’t an unusual thing in my experience with shows, but it raised the stakes a bit for me.

Henry told me that he and Jon had been trading lessons for years, germinating ideas for collaboration. Their focused work on In Pursuit “started just before Covid, and it’s evolved along the way.” He started with “something Brahmsy as a proof of concept,” a romantic movement with blues overtones. Together they developed various interpretations, keeping an eye out for a clearer shared message to bring it together, “philosophically chewing the fat, which was a lot of fun.”

The movement titles were a big hint to the underlying theme of In Pursuit — “Life” and “Liberation.” Attracted to the idea of exploring the “failures and accomplishments of our systems,” the collaborators set out to break down the barriers separating musical territories and express hope for the same in our fractious society.

Our ensemble came down to a sextet — myself on bass, Maria Flurry on vibraphone, Henry on electronic keyboard and melodica, Leanne Lawhead on flute, Wendy White on violin, and Jonathan at the grand piano. We took several swings at each of the two movements, with a small cadre of friends and family members as listeners.

I should emphasize that this was meant neither as a formal performance nor a rehearsal. This sort of exercise is meant mainly to test the writing, much like a table reading of a play, and in this case to test the concept of mixing players from different traditions.

The reading — photo by Mark Schufletowski

The music was both structured and open, a subtle, dreamy bed for Jon’s playful and hearty exploration, with a long piano cadenza in the first movement, to my ear structured to express the full circle of human experience. The second movement, teeing off from the triplet rhythms that for me define the blues, brought more of a narrative feeling, with a forceful climax and gentle, reflective finish. Jonathon is well known here for his ecstatic approach to the keyboard, and the result for us was deep and joyful.

With a cold reading you can’t really expect to get everything just right, but that wasn’t really the goal, and everyone onstage expressed unreserved satisfaction with the experiment. Our little audience offered clear enthusiasm for the work and a range of interesting and thoughtful interpretations, illustrating how the experience of music, like life, is a little different for everyone.

I’m grateful to Henry and Jon for including me, it was fun!

Going forward Henry hopes to develop the piece to travel, bringing together chamber groups in different locales to create their own thing with it, employing diverse instruments, ideas and interpretations.

Henry’s will to break down barriers will be evident in this year’s program for the AZPhil. He says he loves to “explore what’s out there,” which we can take in a couple of different ways. He points in particular to a night with a string octet and another full program with soloist Peter D’Leon culminating in Nikolai Kapustin’s jazz-infused Piano Concerto No. 4.

Season-ticket sales are underway, check the AZPhil website, AZPhil.org.

Steven Ayres is Editor of 5enses.

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