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Barney Frank's Philly jazz show gets a thumbs-up on the hep-cat meter

The retired Massachusetts Congressman and LGBT pioneer may not have discovered a new career path. But his narration for a piece about a boy and his trumpet used that gravelly voice and gravitas to good effect.

Barney Frank was the guest narrator for Chamber Orchestra First Editions Sunday at the Kimmel Center.
Barney Frank was the guest narrator for Chamber Orchestra First Editions Sunday at the Kimmel Center.Read moreChuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

The coincidence couldn't have been planned.

Outfest 2017 was throbbing away on 12th Street on Sunday afternoon while retired Congressman Barney Frank, whose work helped bring public LGBT activities into the mainstream, was a few blocks away at the Kimmel Center, having been tapped as an unconventional narrator for an offbeat piece of jazz/orchestra music, Gunther Schuller's Journey Into Jazz.

The occasion was a concert by Chamber Orchestra First Editions, whose mission is both modern music and early Mozart, cheek by jowl, founded and directed by James Freeman. Both Freeman and Frank were classmates at Harvard, and while looking for a narrator for Schuller, Freeman speculated that Frank might have the time available after retiring from about four decades of public life in the Democratic Party. And there he was on the Perelman Theater stage for the third in a series of Philadelphia-area concerts.

The Sunday performance was a success. Schuller's piece tells the story of a misfit kid trumpeter who evolves into a jazz Jedi, accompanied by a symphonic jazz panorama that felt so fresh you'd never guess the piece was written in 1962. The piece benefited by the gravel that Frank's voice has acquired over the years, and his bluff, no-nonsense manner plus regional accent (New Jersey) assured that the story would never lapse into sentimentality.

But, at age 77, does Frank have a new career path? Nah. Though he seems perfectly at home in front of an audience, he isn't a performer, but a get-down-to-business guy who probably is not about to master a more artificial style of presentation. And would we want him to? He is who he is, and has basically lived the message of Schuller's Journey Into Jazz, which is "be yourself."

As a companion piece to Schuller, Gabriel Globus-Hoenich's Shattered Stones, a work for jazz quintet and string orchestra commissioned for the concert, arrives in an era when jazz-symphonic synthesis is no longer rocket science. This piece favored the jazz quintet over the orchestra — fine! — and succeeded as much on the charisma of the performers as the music itself.

Mozart would seem to be an incongruous presence here, but was wisely positioned at the top of the concert (Piano Concerto No. 12, K. 414) and at the end (Symphony No. 29 K. 201). The concerto went well enough with Swarthmore faculty member Andrew Hauze and First Editions associate conductor Heidi Jacob, though Hauze's piano technique isn't refined enough to make every note count in Mozart. Also, the middle movement's unusually slow tempo enlarged the expressive playing field in ways the performers didn't justify.

The symphony was quite a different story. Though his public life has been mainly with modern music, Freeman is hugely passionate about Mozart in general and this symphony in particular, projecting a ruggedly dramatic point of view and a sound world that's distinctive to this piece. Whatever his tempo choices, they came off as electric. He also drew from his players a level of playing and exterior polish that I wish the higher-profile Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia could achieve in this repertoire.