Two coups — beaucoup cool

By Lawrence Cosentino

Jazz legend Sonny Rollins and opera star Renee Fleming top Wharton Center's jazz and classics lineup in the new season

Two musical titans, saxophone colossus
Sonny Rollins and soprano supre
RollinsFleming.jpgme Renee Fleming, will headline the
2012-2013 Wharto
n Center jazz and classics series. Both artists are
making their first appearances at Wharton. 

Whether you dig the Scotch-on-the-rocks
kick of Rollins’ “St. Thomas” or swoon to the single-malt mellow of
Fleming’s “O mio babbino caro,” that’s two colossal coups for the
Wharton Center. Both artists have combined popular appeal with critical
acclaim as few artists have.

In the jazz world, it just doesn’t get
any better than Rollins, one the most enduring and accomplished
musicians America has produced. His career stretches back to historic
stints with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk in the 1950s, followed by
influential piano-less trio work that opened the tenor sax to wider
realms of expression. 

At 82, Rollins is still in fine form and
more in demand than ever. Wharton Center executive director Michael
Brand has been trying to land Rollins for years. Rollins' Wharton date
on Oct. 7 falls among gigs in Marseille, Vienna, Prague, Geneva, London
and Bologna.

“He’s not easy to book,” Brand said. “He turns a lot of work down.”

This year, Michigan got lucky with
Rollins: the Wharton gig and Rollins’ headlining appearance at the
Detroit Jazz Festival Aug. 31 are two of only three U.S. performances on
his schedule this fall. (The third is in St. Louis.)

Few would deny that Rollins and alto sax
innovator Ornette Coleman are the two foremost living legends of jazz,
but it would be a mistake to think of Rollins as a relic. Well before
the Sept. 11 attacks sent Rollins fleeing from his New York apartment,
saxophone in hand, he entered a new phase of creative energy and
critical recognition. Last year’s live CD, “Road Shows Vol. 2,” was a
near-unanimous critics’ pick as best of the year.

For classical music lovers, the chance to
get direct vibrations from the spine-tingling voice of diva Renee
Fleming is just as rare an opportunity. Fleming, who appears Feb. 27,
limits her recitals to half a dozen or so a year.

In the classical world, it would be hard
to find an artist who combines accessible, popular appeal with lavish
artistic acclaim (Sir Georg Solti called her one of the two greatest
voices he ever worked with).

Fleming, 53, has nailed nearly every
significant soprano role in opera, stretching into contemporary material
like Blanche DuBois in Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” while
maintaining sway over the great Handel, Mozart and Puccini roles. She’s
also been game for offbeat excursions like playing diva Renata Flambe on
“A Prairie Home Companion” and singing in the nonexistent language of
Sindarin for the soundtrack of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the
King.” Fleming’s 2010 disc “Dark Worlds” explored what she called an
“alternate universe” of rock tunes by Muse, Death Cab for Cutie, Leonard Cohen and others.

“We’ve been trying for six years to get
her and we finally got on her radar,” Brand said. Last year, Wharton
came close to snagging Fleming, but Ann Arbor’s University Music Society
lured her away.

While Fleming is here, she will do a master class for Michigan State University College of Music students.

Beyond the Sonny Rollins date, Wharton’s
2012-1013 jazz series has more depth and strength than usual. On March
20, a true all-star package tour from the Monterey Jazz Festival teams
vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, who sang at Wharton in 2011, with four of
jazz’s leading artists: bassist Christian McBride, pianist Benny Green,
saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Lewis Nash, each of whom has a
truckload of recordings, awards and hard-core jazz-lover cred. 

The Monterey date will be followed up
April 7, with an intriguing all-star date headed by one of jazz’s most
respected guitarists, John Scofield. “The Hollowbody Band” matches
Scofield with two other top jazz guitarists, Peter Bernstein and Kurt
Rosenwinkel, with Bill Stewart on drums and Ben Street on bass.

Brand said he thought the jazz series was
complete until a colleague dragged him to New York in January to hear
the Birdland Big Band, a Big Apple-based bebop machine devoted to the
music of Charlie Parker and his worthy constituents, led by veteran
drummer Tommy Igoe.

“Man, was that a band,” Brand said. “Live
at Birdland” will cram itself into the Pasant Theater Oct. 25, where
Brand expects they will return every year. The jazz series is rounded
out Dec. 6 by Latin powerhouse Tiempo Libre, returning to Wharton after
successful dates there in 2006 and 2009.

Brand said the jazz series got a bit out
of hand this year. “We thought we were only going to do a smaller thing
in classical and jazz, because with the economy, you never know. But
there were too many things to get.”

As Brand acknowledged, Wharton’s classics
series is comparatively slim next season, with only two dates besides
Fleming’s. The BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Keith Lockhart will
come to town Jan. 31, and a perennial crossover favorite, flutist Sir
James Galway, arrives with his “Legacy Tour” March 28. Galway will also
do a master class at MSU.

That means there will be a complete
absence of non-pops symphonies, opera and chamber groups at Wharton next
year, other than performances by the Lansing Symphony and the MSU
College of Music.

However, Brand said the classics will
return in force the following season. Talks are under way to renew the
Wharton’s partnerships with the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit
Symphony. Brand is also working on a visit from Russia’s St. Petersburg
Symphony, with Yuri Temirkanov conducting, for the fall of 2013.

The complete 2012-2013 Wharton Center season will be announced on Sunday. Visit for details.