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Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University was sold out for the "Sounds of Justice and Inclusion" annual concert, honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For the third year, William Henry Curry and the Durham Symphony joined the show, and for the second time (after missing last year) also did the 100 Men in Black Chorus, directed by Marlon West. John Brown and his "Little" Big Band provided the backbone of the concert, and displayed the virtuosity among all its members that audiences have come to expect.
With the results of the recent election showing the reservoir of racial tension and needless hostility in our country, and with the rising tide of nationalism and right-wing political leaders all over the world, it was most fitting and welcome to have this show of honor to the memory of the greatest orator and moral leader our country has seen since Lincoln. The words and example of Martin Luther King have inspired not just generations of people in many nations, but also have directly influenced the creation of many works of music, some of which have been featured on this series of annual tribute concerts. This evening was no exception, which was most fitting.
After a welcome and introduction by Dr. Benjamin Reese, Brown and the "Little" Big Band started with "Cherokee" by Ray Noble. The impressive, up-tempo solos got the audience in the mood quickly and were rewarded by immediate applause.
Next, Keith Snipes gave a performance of quotes from MLK about jazz (with references to the blues) and the importance of music in inspiring the civil rights movement. Snipes has quite a knack for emulating King's manner of speech, which is certainly a challenge as we have all heard recordings and seen videos of the original many times. Words like these need to have an oratorical delivery, and in this case the enhancement with soft slow jazz in the background was most effective.
Curry has long expressed deep appreciation for Duke Ellington, and that was evident again tonight with an Ellington work called Night Creature Andante Mysterioso (Stalking Monster), arranged by Gunther Schuller and performed by both the DSO and the "Little" Big Band. This gets its name from the opening passage, with solo piano in low register with ominous rumblings. The orchestration is sparse and eccentric for this kind of music, and probably needs multiple hearings to get a proper appreciation for its charms.
A special guest appeared for the next two works with the "Little" Big Band. Dee Dee Bridgewater has had a notable career as a vocalist and actress, as well as being an activist in the battle against world hunger. (She was named ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1999.) She limped onto the stage on crutches, having broken her ankle recently, but the show must go on. We are fortunate that people, unlike crickets, don't sing with their feet. She showed a real range of expression frequently missing from singers these days, which was quite welcome. The first piece was "Speak Low" by Kurt Weil, with lyrics by Ogden Nash. The second was "A Foggy Day" by George and Ira Gershwin. Both were arranged by Cecil Bridgewater. The balance between the forces was very well done; I was seated in the back row and had no problem hearing everything, which is by no means always the case.
Curry is well-known as a composer as well as a conductor, and his best-known work, Eulogy for a Dream, was performed by the DSO with a bit of a twist. In previous performances, this work for full orchestra and narrator was narrated by gifted performers, such as William Warfield (and also Keith Snipes). This time, Curry took on the narration himself, and gave the baton to the new assistant conductor for the DSO, the principal second violinist Shelley Livingston. Livingston has long experience not only with the DSO, but also as a teacher and conductor for the Duke String School. This was her first outing with the orchestra, and she did a fine job. The narrator quotes sections of several famous speeches by MLK, which means that this interesting composition is not formally published, due to copyright issues. This is a shame, but the problem lifts in 2038, so I suppose patience is in order. The music is direct and effective for the purpose, and shows real skill in construction.
Following intermission, we heard the fourth movement (Affirmation) of Symphony No. 6 "Gettysburg," by Roy Harris, with the DSO conducted once again by Curry. Harris has written several works with Lincoln themes. This work is a bit aimless and without memorable melodic lines, but clearly has an American idiom and paints its images with broad strokes to a large climax.
Next came a set with the "Little" Big Band: "Easin' It" by Frank Foster, and then two songs again with Bridgewater. These were "September Song" by Kurt Weill, and "How High the Moon" by Morgan Lewis.
Snipes returned with an original speech called A Stone of Hope, inspired by the MLK Memorial in Washington DC. This was quite effective and moving, and I am glad that it is available online.
By this time, it was clear that the concert was going to be very long, especially as it started 15 minutes late…
Curry introduced Ellington's last work, composed in the hospital just before he died and inspired by the King family: "Three Black Kings," arranged by Maurice Peress for the full orchestra and the "Little" Big Band.
For the last two offerings, the DSO and "Little" Big Band was joined by the 100 Men in Black Chorus led by West. The first piece was "Glory" (from Selma by John Stephens, Lonnie Lynn, and Che Smith). The chorus stood far away at the back of the stage, and even with three microphones was not so easy to hear over all the other musicians. This piece made little use of the chorus, concentrating instead on two soloists, one singer, and one 18-year-old rapper. The rapper came off the stage and made the usual flailing gesticulations while walking about in front of the audience. This reviewer was not impressed, but the audience ate it up. Such is show biz in this era.*
The final work used all the forces for a setting of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by John Steff, arranged by Peter J. Withousky. The setting strayed a fair distance from the original, I think, although it was a little hard to tell; the chorus was in charge of each verse, sung softly and at some variance from the original, while the refrain was loud, with everyone playing, and directly taken from the hymn. Again, when soft, the chorus was difficult to hear.
The whole concert was at least three hours, which I hope can be reconsidered next time; it was a long haul. The audience was delighted, and overall the event was a highlight of the season, certainly for the DSO and the "Little" Big Band.
Please note that the DSO is having serious financial difficulties, and it would be most considerate for all local patrons of the arts to consider helping this fine organization survive well into the future.