Attendees at the 22nd annual Memorial Concert presented by the Friends of Alec Wilderat Saint Peters Church in New York on Saturday, March 15, were treated to generous helpings of reverence and melancholy along with a substantial dose of inspired music making.

The room’s acoustics, unfortunately, were not hospitable to music making. A trickling fountain provided a tranquil note during the silences in the program but obscured the music with unwelcome white noise during the performances.

The first selection featured conductor Richard Auldon Clark as viola soloist in the premiere performance of Wilder’s Sonata for Viola and Piano. The only unamplified work on the program, the piece was a little difficult to make out given the hall’s fuzzy acoustic, but Clark and pianist Michael Cass attacked the work with energy, bringing out its singing melodies and rhythmic complexities. In his remarks before the performance, Clark called attention to the use of 12-tone technique in the sonata’s third movement, and the juxtaposition of serialism and lyrical jazz made for a lively contrast.

A high point of the program was The Four Bags’ arrangements of four of the Wilder Octets, rescored for a distinctive ensemble of accordion, guitar, clarinet and trombone. In his opening remark, accordionist Tom Aldrich suggested that the audience hold its applause til after all four pieces had been played, but the crowd refused to cooperate. After the first two selections (Such A Tender Night and Jack, This Is My Husband), audience member Mitch Miller could restrain himself no longer. “How can you not applaud?” he cried out. “These guys are terrific!” They received enthusiastic ovations after every subsequent selection (Little Girl Grows Up and a high-spirited rendition of It’s Silk, Feel It).

After The Four Bags played, Mitch came to the mike to speak warmly about the prospect of a new generation of musicians re-invigorating Wilder’s music, and offered a few tantalizing anecdotes about the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Octets. “I don’t want to take up any more of your time,” he apologized more than once during his remarks before launching into another reminiscence; the audience didn’t appear to mind his monopolizing their time at all.

After the intermission, a trio of singer Nancy Marano, pianist Mike Abene and trumpeter Joe Wilder offered a stylish set of Wilder tunes. I’ll Be Around was followed by a medley of If Someday Comes Ever Again and Blackberry Winter. A distinctive arrangement of Moon and Sand showcased Marano’s considerable skills as a jazz stylist and the virtuosic flair of Mike Abene. Afterward, Marano sat down at the piano to accompany herself of the Roy Kral/Alec Wilder tune So You’ve Had A Chnage Of Heart. The trio closed their set with an up-tempo jazz reading of While We’re Young that lifted the spirit of everyone in the room.

The final attraction of the afternoon was the pianist Marian McPartland, a longtime friend of Wilder’s and the recipient of a number of compositions penned especially for her. This listener found some of the selections especially poignant, since they were tunes I first heard McPartland play some thirty years ago when I was a college student just discovering Alec’s music. Jazz Waltz for a Friend and Where Are All The Good Companions are tunes I remember from my well-worn copy of the Halycon LP Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder. Her set also include a reflective reading of It’s So Peaceful In The Country and a selection she introduced as a theme from the Wilder Octet The Neurotic Goldfish which Chick Corea borrowed for his tune Matrix, which she played with quirky brio.

McPartland was joined onstage by Jackie Cain, whose late husband Roy Kral was eulogized early in the program by host Tom Hampson, for two selections. Cain apologized beforehand for her rusty chops, idled by grief over the past eight months, but the audience responded warmly to her heartfelt readings of Remember My Child and While We’re Young. For the second time in the afternoon, I was struck by the ironic contrast between the youthful optimism of that song’s lyric and the nostalgic ache it seemed to evoke in the older music of the audience. “Songs were made to sing while we’re young,” to be sure, and Wilder’s songs were enjoyed by musicians and listeners of all generations in this stirring memorial concert.

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