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Saturday, August 31, 2019

Prom 54: Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music @ Royal Albert Hall – August 29


(Review by Alison Bentley)

In the beginning Ellington created three Sacred Concerts. This Prom brought together a selection of pieces taken from all three concerts, including big band, choir, soloists - and tap dancer. In the Royal Albert Hall, there was no incense - just dry ice drifting above the stage.

In the Beginning God opened the Prom, and also the first Concert of Sacred Music, in 1965 (in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.) Peter Edwards tonight played Ellington’s role as pianist and conductor, opening with groovy 6-note riffs (representing the 6 syllables of the repeatedly chanted title.) Rhiannon Jeffreys’ fine bari work felt pleasantly cocooned by the gorgeous band voicings. US jazz-soul singer Carleen Anderson’s voice was as deep and resonant as Brock Peters’ 65 version, but with some of Abbey Lincoln’s tragic grandeur. She intoned Ellington’s witty beat poem over the band’s stupendous swing, debating the pros and cons of a time before creation:
“No headaches, no aspirin…
No Barracuda, no Buffalo, 
No birds, no bees, no beetles.”
Her impassioned conducting of the choir (the BBC Singers with the UK Vocal Assembly) was like a dance all by itself. They chanted the books of the Bible, speeding up till “Revelation” sparked an explosive drum solo from Rod Youngs.

Something 'Bout Believing had rhythmic choral chants with hipster lyrics that brought to mind some pieces from Bernstein’s show Wonderful Town. There was a powerfully emotive blend of brass riffs, soli, and smooth choral backing for Ellie Smith’s luscious trombone solo. Mary Pearce sang The Lord’s Prayer like early Aretha, with Ife Ogunjobi’s trumpet bursts like affirmations of the vocal lines. Ellington wrote Praise God and Dance for classically-trained singer Alice Babs, and tonight Emma Tring brought her powerful, almost operatic voice into the mix over sombre chords. The piece erupted into swing, as Annette Walker tap-dancedleaning forward as if dancing into a strong wind. Perhaps it was the gale force of the band. Tring later sang the daring dissonances of Heaven, with Alam Nathoo’s sax in melting Johnny Hodges mode.

The third concert, premiered in Westminster Abbey in 1973, was written months before Ellington’s death, and has a quieter mood. My Love, with its meditative, repeated phrases, was sung here by not one but four singers with complementary voices, over long muted horn lines. Georgia Mancio, Zara McFarlane, Cherise Adams-Burnett and Carleen Anderson moved from understated sweetness to full gospel acrobatics.

Some pieces were a reminder that they were written at the height of the ‘60s civil rights movement, their message undiminished. Ain't But the One, originally from Ellington’s stage work My People, featured the triumphs of Old Testament heroes. Call and response between Daniel Thomas and choir was pitched against uplifting swing. At the time of the Second Concert Ellington was mourning the death of friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn. In Father Forgive, Randolph Matthews recited a list of man’s inhumanities to man. The choir reassuringly repeated the response “father forgive,“ with its varied rich harmonies. Matthews sang Freedom with Anderson, her extraordinary high notes both fragile and strong. From piano trio to full band, with choral chants and harmonies, notes stacked into chords- the energy never flagged. There was a stirring Parker-ish solo from Nathaniel Facey and fiery tenor from Nathoo over the crescendoing choirIt all evoked Strayhorn’s idea of “four major moral freedoms”: freedom from hate, self-pity, fear and pride. Heritage (aka My Mother, My Father, and Love) from My People was the only piece not from a Sacred Concert, and Edwards had arranged it brilliantly for  Paris’, Thomas’ and Matthews’ Stevie Wonder-ish voices. Beverley Skeete had a little gospel grit in her voice in Tell Me It's the Truth, a lively jazz waltz.

Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander paid a personal, solo tribute in his Improvisation on Ellington. Ellington, he told us, had persuaded US Immigration to let the teenage Alexander stay in the country. Tonight, Alexander mixed Caribbean, gospel and Ellingtonian grooves in a superb medley- In a Magenta Haze, Take the A Train, Satin Doll, Solitude.

He joined singers Tawiah and Heidi Vogel in Come Sunday, African-American workers’ day of worship- “Please look down and see my people through.” The two voices were well-matched: Vogel deep and dramatic; Tawiah lighter, more like Lizz Wright. The melody was revisited in double time in David Danced, the choir’s lyric now “David danced before the Lord.” Monty Alexander smiled with pleasure at Renato Paris’ energised scat solo, while Annette Walker’s magic golden shoes drove the rhythm.

 These pieces were all being performed for the first time at the Proms. The audience loved them, and there are many more in the three Sacred Concerts. Maybe next year?
Alison

1 comment :

Unknown said...

Thank you for a really well informed and written review, an antidote to the superficial, self-regarding Clive Davis in the Times who must have attended a different prom if he found it "ponderous and plodding". Thanks again.

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