• HONOR! Sacred Ellington with Jessye Norman, Soprano

    March 10, 2009. Posted by Becca Pulliam.


    Genesis!  Exodus!  Leviticus! Deuteronomy!

    Duke Ellington composed three Sacred Concerts, and in his lifetime each was performed once – the first at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965, the second at St. John the Divine in New York in 1968, and the last at Westminster Abbey in London in 1973. Ellington's funeral took place at St. John the Divine at 112th and Amsterdam Avenue. It is a huge space, with a seating capacity of thousands who can look up and up and up to the vaulted ceiling. The cathedral has recently reopened after a thorough restoration. This past Saturday night, Carnegie Hall's HONOR! Series restaged music from the Sacred Concerts at St. John the Divine, and it was a sold out crowd.The lighting was spectacular, at first white and vertical.  New colors came with each of the 23 movements, which began with a soft-shoe dance (Maurice Chestnut) leading into the familiar "Come Sunday" melody. The dancer's platform was above and behind the musicians. On risers, an orchestra (the Sacred Ellington Band) was to the left, a chorus (the Sacred Voices) to the right, a string quartet in the last row of the chorus. Everyone wore blue.

    In darker blue, Jessye Norman entered, with the words "in the beginning." Ms. Norman is the curator of the HONOR! Festival, the Carnegie Hall tribute to African-American culture, now taking place throughout New York City. She has one of the world's most thrilling voices – I can now attest – and has been including music from Ellington’s Sacred Concerts in her recitals. She is the story of this concert. She spoke, she sang alone, with her pianist, strings, the chorus, the band. I particularly loved the sound of her voice responsively with the chorus, a magnificent chorus. She sang with sass, humor, conviction, praise, The Lord's Prayer, Hallelujah, Bible stories. Three levels of illuminated, intricate stained glass windows soared above. Her voice reached every pane. As historic as the three original Sacred Concerts must have been with the composer at the piano leading his band, this performance had the glory of Jessye Norman's voice.

    I mentioned humor. Two-thirds in, a drum (Steve Johns) solo accompanied the chorus as it shouted out the names of the books of the Old Testament, cleverly grouped just when the recitation might get tedious. After Ms. Norman sang an interlude with the piano, the bass (Ira Coleman) played alone, and the chorus resumed. Matthew! Mark! Luke! John! .. Corinthians! Corinthians! .. .. .. REVELATION!

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