Live review

Prom 54 – Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music at the Royal Albert Hall

Prom 54 – Duke Ellington’s Sacred Music
(Royal Albert Hall, 29 August 2019. Review by Lauren Bush)

Duke Ellington’s sacred music was, to him, the most important project of his career. He was asked to perform at the opening of the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1965. So, using some of his previous religious compositions, he put together an outstanding collection of songs that received high acclaim. He continued to compose music for two later concerts in New York (1968) and London (1973) that now form the collection that have been recorded and performed around the world – most recently, Proms 54, Thursday night at the Royal Albert Hall.

Conductor and pianist, Peter Edwards, led the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, along with Carleen Anderson’s UK Vocal Assembly and the BBC Singers in the chosen works, all themed around parts of the Bible or general Christian messages.

Prom 54 – UK Vocal Assembly with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra and the BBC Singers (Photo: BBC/Mark Allan)

The evening opened with In the Beginning God. Brought in in layers with hand drumming on the kit, conga style, Edwards twinkled on the piano before Rhiannon Jeffreys confidently came in on baritone saxophone, playing with character and control creating a thrilling contrast. Anderson then joined in slowly and in her deepest range, quite impressive for a soprano. It was surprising and different but not without the jazz elements that we expected, the drums were still swinging and the horns were still playing those familiar crunchy chords. Xhosa Cole played a beautiful virtuosic cadenza near the end.

The Lord’s Prayer was a particularly rousing moment that featured Mary Pearce singing Ellington’s composed melody to the well known prayer and Ife Ogunjobi punctuating her words on the trumpet. It felt slightly uncomfortable in the room, as you might normally get on your feet to join into such spirited music, but Pearce had everyone clapping along as best she could and it did not affect her own emotional connection to the song – she was clearly in the moment.

Soprano Emma Tring was a particular highlight of the night as she was featured on Praise God and Dance (among other songs). She brought such joy with her spirit and she, perhaps had a harder job (surrounded with primarily jazz musicians) to stand out. One can only imagine what people were thinking as Duke Ellington’s compositions were first received in the church, especially as a tap dancer would have appeared on the stage to literally embody the words “Praise God and Dance”. Annette Walker excitedly slid onto the stage with a smile as she responded to the cries of the choir, “Dance! Dance!”. Ellington wrote in phrases of music for the tap dancer to include their rhythmic ideas – almost like trading fours with the band – improvising patterns and shapes. This was yet another element to the programme that brought delight and complexity. While her feet were miked, there were moments where the band overshadowed the sound of the tapping, but even watching her was exhilarating.

Prom 54 – Tap dancer Annette Walker and pianist Monty Alexander with the Nu Civilisation Orchestra (Photo: BBC/Mark Allan)

Other notable moments through the night included the statement piece Freedom, which had an anthemic quality to it, but was still likely to leave you singing it on the way home. It felt a bit like a radio jingle, whose objective was to make “Freedom” a household product.

Finally the concert paused to introduce world-class Jamaican pianist, Monty Alexander, who shared his story of how Ellington had helped him in his early career. He sat cooly at the piano and played a small selection of popular Ellington tunes, namely, Magenta Haze, A-Train and Satin Doll with nods to Duke’s style and improvisations. It felt as though he was just getting going when he stopped to take a bow. It was a short treat that could have been allowed more maturation.

The last moments, as singers Heidi Vogel and Tawiah soulfully sang probably the most well recognised sacred song of Duke’s, Come Sunday, felt rushed and un-savoured. The closing invited Annette Walker out once again for David Danced – a reprise of the Come Sunday melody. She began the piece with an impressive solo, which again, could have taken more time for development. It felt a bit like everyone knew time was almost up and the pressure was building to finish before the lights went out.

Overall, an interesting selection of Ellington’s most impressive works that could have done with a bit of tweaking, to have chosen the best moments to highlight and appreciate.

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