Philharmonic wraps up its season with “Bernstein and ‘The Duke.’” Brevard’s own orchestra will be in the spotlight for the final concert of the Brevard Philharmonic’s 38th season. On April 26 at 3 p.m ., the audience at Brevard College’s Porter Center can expect some of the most lively, melodic 20th century music ever written. The three featured composers, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, have in common a fascination with a blend of classical, Jazz and Latin rhythms, creating a sound that is quintessentially American.
The concert opens with George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.” Written in 1932 after “two hysterical weeks in Cuba where no sleep was had,” Gershwin was inspired by street bands and the club music he heard there. He had brought back with him four percussion instruments – the claves, bongo, guiro and maracas – and set out to compose a piece with the Cuban percussion instruments featured in full force. Its first performance, with Oscar Levant at the piano, was by the New York Philharmonic in August 1932 to a record breaking audience of 18,000 in an outdoor stadium. The event was so successful that it became the first annual all-Gershwin concert, a tradition lasting into the 1960s. This is an exciting piece full of melody, counterpoint, Caribbean rhythm and percussion.
The inspiration for “West Side Story” was Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” a serious tale of star crossed lovers. It was Leonard Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” choreographer, Jerome Robbins who suggested the modern day setting with the lovers from two rival gangs. This turned out to be a timely creative decision, as, when the show opened in 1957, adolescent violence and race hatred was a real issue and at its peak, especially in New York City. The powerful amalgam of the Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, Bernstein’s music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Jerome Robbins’ choreography produced one of the American musical theatre’s most moving and most loved musicals.
Similar to what Gershwin did with his Cuban Overture, Bernstein’s “West Side Story” score masterfully blends Jazz elements with Latin rhythms and romantic, popular ballads. The “West Side Story” score was first performed as a concert piece in 1961 by the New York Philharmonic. It’s nine episodes, played without pause, follow the plot’s chronology from the prologue, to the young couple’s first meeting to the rumble to the poignant, suddenly tragic refrain of “Somewhere.”
Even as a boy, Edward Kennedy Ellington had an elegance to him. A friend gave him his nickname and he carried the name “Duke” into adulthood. Duke Ellington began attracting serious attention to himself in the 1920s with a four piece band, which enlarged to a 10 piece band. Right around the same time that Gershwin was writing “Cuban Overture” in 1932, Ellington was wowing audiences with his wildly popular big band. This sound was dubbed, “The Ellington effect” by pianist Billy Strayhorn, who joined the band in 1939. The sound depended largely on the individual traits of each band member; but, it was Ellington’s genius that pulled it all together and gave it its magic. One of history’s most prolific composers, in addition to his shorter jazz band pieces, Ellington wrote for the theatre, film scores, sacred music and orchestral suites.
The Sunday, April 26, program includes two Ellington pieces. The first is “A Medley for Orchestra,” a sequence of familiar standards such as “Sophisticated Lady,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.” The brass section and the percussion section really go to town in this medley, showcasing this new-to-1932 genre with its faster harmonic rhythm and improvisation, that thing called “swing.”
The second and final piece for the Sunday concert is Ellington’s “Harlem Suite” or “Harlem.” Composed when Ellington was 57, but still at the peak of his powers, Ellington gives us another depiction of the black experience, this time celebrating Harlem and New York. He described it as “a strolling tour of Harlem on a Sunday afternoon.” Along the way we hear all the elements that make up that neighborhood: Latin sounds, swing music, a civil rights call, a slow dirge, a spiritual, and with wild abandon, a night club.
“Bernstein and ‘The Duke’” is sponsored by Mary S. Sauerteig. The Brevard Philharmonic is a nonprofit organization comprised of local and regional musicians, presenting six concerts annually at Brevard College’s Porter Center for the Performing Arts, under the baton of Donald Portnoy, its artistic director and conductor. Its mission is to foster in the community and in our schools an appreciation for classical music and the performing arts.
Tickets are on sale now for “Bernstein and ‘The Duke.’” To purchase tickets, visit brevardphilharmonic. org ., or call (828) 884-4221, or stop in to their new downtown Brevard office at 66 South Broad Street (on the corner of Broad and Jordan) Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
“Conversations with the Maestro,” beginning at 2 p.m ., will be held in Scotts Commons at the Porter Center before the concert. All are welcome to attend the pre-concert event.