Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: Bennett's clarinet gives symphony that swing


Has Thomas Wilkins learned how to raise legendary jazz musicians from the dead?

Nah, he's just discovered one prodigious clarinet player who happens to sound — and look — a lot like a young Benny Goodman.

Not that Dave Bennett — the 24-year-old clarinet phenom playing with Wilkins and the Omaha Symphony this weekend at the Holland Performing Arts Center — is an impersonator.

This guy's no Vegas act.

Rather, he's a bona fide clarinet virtuoso who plays blistering passages with dead-on intonation, just like the late, great King of Swing.

Well, there's no reason to doubt Bennett, who insists that the physical similarities between himself and Goodman are purely coincidental. Sure, Bennett has a penchant for dark suits and old-fashioned haircuts. But so do most U.S. congressmen.

Besides, Bennett has been wearing his trademark Goodman-style glasses since childhood, long before he ever heard "Bugle Call Rag" or any of the other terrific songs he played Friday night.

From the outset, Bennett and Wilkins transformed the Omaha Symphony into a convincing big band.

They played Goodman's theme song, "Let's Dance," with plenty of swing and playful attitude — Goodman's final notes were like a mirthful chuckle.

Their medley performances of "Stomping at the Savoy," "Moonglow" and other familiar numbers were warmly nostalgic.

That said, Bennett is also no period musician, and his performances seemed anything but antiquarian.

His extended improvisational flights of fancy in George Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm" were wild enough to turn Sonny Rollins green with envy. Indeed, Bennett is the first improviser I've heard mix Gershwin with "The Flintstones Theme."

Bennett's outstanding quintet — pianist Tad Weed, drummer Peter Siers, bassist Paul Keller, guitarist Hugh Leal and vocalist Carol McCartney — were just as impressive. In fact, Weed's Gershwin solo seemingly condensed the composer's entire songbook into about two minutes — excluding his oblique references to "Rhapsody in Blue."

McCartney, meanwhile, sang such tunes as "Why Don't You Do Right" with a silky top register and breathy low notes.

For his part, Wilkins proved to have a real affinity for this music, conducting with vibrancy and romantic sweep.

Wilkins, of course, is the symphony's classical musical director, but he insists on conducting at least one pops concert a year. He claims it's to make a point — that the pops concerts are as important as the classical ones.

True, but I suspect the real reason is that he loves this music.

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