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Friday, October 03, 2014

Something Sacred

From the Vault Dept.: In 1999, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute hosted a weeklong Duke Ellington festival, the highlight of which was a program of Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts,” culled from the three such works he wrote towards the end of his life, and which brought bandleader and Ellington authority David Berger to Troy to conduct the work. Here’s my report.


CENTENARIES ARE VERY CONVENIENT for giving historical figures extra attention; in Duke Ellington’s case, it’s the pleasant icing on a cake that, fortunately, is still very actively sampled. But it’s easy to recall Ellington only as the writer of “Satin Doll” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” with some faint recollection of the band that made headlines even as rock and roll was in its ascendance.

Duke Ellington
What does Duke Ellington mean to us today? “Plenty. He’s considered one of the major American composers of the 20th century,” says Tom Savoy. Savoy is himself a composer whose work has won awards at contests across the country, and who discovered, when he was teaching a Theory IV course at Schenectady County Community College, “that they had examples from Ellington right in the textbook. We studied his voicings and chords.”

Savoy is also a choral director who has traveled throughout Europe with his choir from St. Margaret Mary’s Church in Albany. He also leads the RPI Chorale, which group he’s preparing for a concert at 8 PM Tuesday, April 6, at the Troy Music Hall. “The Sacred Symphony” brings together highlights from Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts, which were composed in 1965 (his recording of “In the beginning, God” won a Grammy), 1967 and 1973, the year before he died. Ellington thought that the Second Sacred Concert was his most important work, and excerpts from it were played for the 12,000 mourners at his funeral.

The segments were chosen and arranged by David Berger, who will be here to conduct the Chorale and the RPI Jazz Ensemble. Berger is an Ellington authority who worked with the composer’s son, Mercer, and conducted the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra for six years.

“When you listen to Ellington’s sacred music, you have to take it from were the guy’s coming from,” says Savoy. “Sometimes it’s half-time at the Cotton Club, with show shtick and screeching horns. But the spirituality always comes through. He did a setting of the 23rd Psalm that’s got funky harmonies – it’s borderline Stravinsky. And it’s very unique.”

In his 1973 autobiography, Music is My Mistress, Ellington wrote this about his Sacred Concerts: “I am sure we appreciate the blessings we enjoy in this country, but it wouldn’t hurt if everyone expressed his appreciation more often. We shall keep this land if we all agree on the meaning of that unconditional word: LOVE.”

The Ellington series already has featured pianist Marcus Roberts, and other highlights include Milt Jackson and Ellis Marsalis with area native Stefon Harris on April 16, Marian McPartland on May 1, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis on May 14. Other local performers will show their stuff when the Empire State Youth Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble and Percussion Ensemble join forces with Stefon Harris for an evening of music by and inspired by Ellington on April 14.

“I think we’re bridging a lot of gaps with this concert – and with this series,” says Savoy. “There are a lot of young people singing with us who didn’t know who Ellington was, and people who knew only his popular works. This music really rounds out the picture. Ellington had an original voice. He was a pioneer – he designed his own category.”

Metroland Magazine, 1 April 1999

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