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Classical 101

Duke Ellington and The Columbus Symphony

This weekend's Columbus Symphony program is conducted by John DeMain. He comes by Gershwin's Porgy and Bess honestly. DeMain was Music Director of the Sherwin M. Goldman-Houston Grand Opera production of Gershwin's opera on Broadway in the late 1970s. That production was for many the introduction to Porgy and Bess. Thirty years later I have no doubt Mr. DeMain will give us the blood and the beauty in scenes from Gershwin's opera. Also on the program is George Gershwin's piano concerto. This was a nod to Paul Whiteman who helped Gershwin premiere this work. I daresay Gershwin learned a great deal about orchestration and orchestral color from Paul Whiteman. Porgy and Bess, that great American opera, has been ably discussed elsewhere on this blog. I'm new to Duke Ellington's The Three Black Kings. This was Duke Ellington's final composition, dictated to his son Mercer from hospital bed, a few weeks before his death. Mercer Ellington completed the score, which was orchestrated by Maurice Peress. The three Kings are Balthasar, Solomon and Martin Luther King. Not intended as a concert work, the score was delivered to Alvin Ailey shortly after Ellington's death. The Ailey company danced the work in 1976, and it remains in the Alvin Ailey Company's repertoire. Coretta Scott King was in the opening night audience, to hear and see a work described in the New York Times, (which) "...with its crescendo of gospel rhythms and its expressionist symbols of marches and martyrdom...moves the spectator."

In Columbus, we will hear the music and if we close our eyes while listening we may very well see a dance. This is not the Duke Ellington of Mood Indigo or Sophisticated Lady. I suppose you could call The Three Black Kings more Carnegie Hall than Cotton Club. This music bears repeated listening. The final movement, a lament for Martin Luther King, is worthy of its namesake.

Terry Teachout's wonderful biography Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington makes little mention of The Three Black Kings. Some of it went back to 1968, and had been played in the  immediate aftermath of Dr. King's assassination. There is no definitive score in Ellington's hand. His son Mercer gave a life to his father's final composition, with Alvin Ailey providing the blood. I'll stick with my long-held opinion. When Duke Ellington's music comes to the concert hall, run do not walk.