By Edward Kliszus
The energy waiting for the American Symphony Orchestra in a packed Carnegie Hall Isaac Stern concert space was tangible as the audience waited for the program to begin. Events in Carnegie Hall are special. Its superb acoustics, beauty, and comfort make it a bright star in the performance world.
Maestro Leon Botstein and the Orchestra arrived to perform the first selection, a work composed by Duke Ellington and performed by him and his Orchestra on its premiere here in 1943. Cinematic in scope, the Black Brown and Beige Suite employs a sumptuous mix of 19th-century symphonic intones and swing band idioms. As expected, we were treated to commanding energetic themes, instrumental soloists as jazz traditional demands, and rich tone colors enhanced by muted brass with generous use of plungers for the distinctive wah-wah sound to imitate human speech (some say it imitates a preacher delivering a sermon). We heard brass flutter-tongue effects, trumpets in their extended register, rhythmic power, a range of saxophones, and solos all around. There were moments of sublime beauty and peace with lush strings, harp, flute, cello solos, and Ellington’s beautiful melodies. Many harmonic ideas and chromatic shifts referenced George Gershwin’s orchestral oeuvre flavored with Ellington’s distinctive styling.
Next was a rendition of Ellington’s Satin Doll arranged by Chuck Israels, featuring soloist Catherine Russell, who beautifully expressed the song with her romantic, sparkling, well-placed sound and brilliant artistry.
Ellington’s Harlem provided opportunities for accomplished clarinet, baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone, trombone, tympani, drum set, and conga soloists. Arturo Toscanini and the famed NBC Symphony originally commissioned this remarkable composition. It is a panoramic musical tour of Harlem beginning on 110th Street Sunday morning. It utilizes a structural leitmotif to project and connect its picturesque, diverse cultures and charm themes.
The Marcus Roberts trio comprises pianist Marcus Roberts, drummer Jason Marsalis, and bassist Rodney Jordan. Their long artistic association and individual artistry provide a means for extraordinary musical performances and interpretation. They seamlessly link their ensemble and improvisational ideas into a single sound that impeccably conveys their selected lyrical poetry. The Orchestra left for a brief sojourn, and in this setting, the trio performed with vocalist Catherine Russell with Let a Song Go Out of My Heart and Mood Indigo. Marvelous, intimate, emotional, and an opportunity for each to solo.
With the Orchestra, the trio performed two Ellington masterpieces, A New World A-Comin’ in its world premiere arrangement by Maurice Peress, and Three Black Kings, composed by Duke but completed by his son Mercer Ellington.
Maestro Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra consistently present diverse, important music in marvelous settings. Carnegie Hall has a great history and is considered internationally one of the greatest concert halls. One is immediately impressed by Botstein’s expressive and precise leadership from the podium. The Orchestra is outstanding and able to convey the subtleties and power expressed by Botstein. The program and program notes are excellent, providing an informative background for the beautiful music appearing on stage. Kudos to the many who organized this magnificent event and its many moving parts. The sound system was excellent, a particularly critical feature when employing soloists with a symphonic orchestra.
Bravo to the many soloists, Orchestra, Marcus Roberts Trio, and Catherine Russell. Special thanks to Maestro Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra for honoring the legacy of great American Master Duke Ellington in such an exemplary fashion.
Runtime: two hours.
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, Conductor
1330 Avenue of the Americas,
Suite 23A, New York, NY 10019
For information on the June 5, 2022 concert, click here.