Features/Interviews (PP)

Duke Ellington’s ‘Sacred Concert’ (Alexandra Palace, 17 July 2021)

Crouch End Festival Chorus will be performing Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert in a concert at Alexandra Palace on Saturday 17 July. In this preview feature, Russell Davies tells the story of how Ellington, “aware that he had not lived a blameless life”, took his “opportunity to square his accounts with the deity” through the Sacred Concerts.

Russell Davies also recounts his own vivid memories of hearing the work performed by Ellington himself, in Cambridge in February 1967…and talks to David Temple of Crouch End Festival Chorus and Roland Perrin of Blue Planet Orchestra about the forthcoming concert.

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Crouch End Festival Chorus at Alexandra Palace. Photo credit: Paul Robinson

Russell Davies writes: In 1965, the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco invited Duke Ellington to play a concert of sacred music in celebration of the newly-built edifice. Though Duke had no such programme ready-made, the request couldn’t have been better timed. Edward Kennedy Ellington was accustomed to an eventful career, but in the mid-sixties – the world’s and his own – events were crowding in on him oppressively. It was in 1965 that Ellington was controversially denied a Pulitzer Prize, on grounds widely assumed to be race-based, and the fact of this rebuff leaked into the press. His long-estranged but undivorced wife Edna was dying of cancer, and so was his beloved musical helpmeet, Billy Strayhorn. Mortality lurked, and Ellington was well aware that he had not lived a blameless life. Here was an opportunity to square his accounts with the deity.

But he was nothing if not a joyful sinner, so it was joy that chiefly animated his First Sacred Concert. By a huge stroke of luck, I saw this for myself, when the Duke accepted an invitation from Canon Hugh Montefiore, later Bishop of Birmingham, to stage the piece at Great St Mary’s, the Cambridge University Church, for a fee of $1000. It was a small venue by Ellington concert standards (1300 crammed-in tickets), and sitting in an aisle seat, I had the honour of seeing my foot tripped over by one of the greatest saxophonists in jazz, Johnny Hodges, on his way to the stage.

The atmosphere of that performance seemed be set by the oaken tones of Harry Carney‘s baritone sax, presaging a soloist who sang the opening four words of the Bible: “In The Beginning, God.” But those solemnities were only one component in what turned out to be – and remains, in the latter-day distillation of Ellington’s three Sacred Concerts – a potpourri of faith-based entertainments. Did the critic Gary Giddins go too far in seeing Ellington as “bringing the Cotton Club revue to the church”? Maybe, but I thank Giddins for reminding us of Ellington’s dictum, “Every man prays in his own language” – in the Duke’s case, music.

Writing in the sixties, however, amid a growing Civil Rights turmoil, Ellington couldn’t concentrate on godliness alone. David Temple, co-founder and conductor of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, and Roland Perrin, whose Blue Planet Orchestra will underpin the piece, are agreed that textually, “Freedom” gets rather more attention than God – which makes the Concerts children of their time, but also wonderfully topical in today’s world. Emancipation had always been a huge theme for the Duke, as the titles of his extended works proclaim: Jump For Joy; Black, Brown and Beige; My People. Ellington was proud of those creations, and borrowed from them to enrich his Sacred Concerts, but he wouldn’t be drawn into explicit discussions about their message. He had a horror of categories, disliking not just the “jazz” label, but the idea that he was a “black composer.” “Composer” itself sufficed, and his compositional tool was his justly-named Famous Orchestra – an almost theatrical troupe of musical character-actors, cast for their range of genius and eccentricity.

Yet Roland Perrin is glad to be working with smaller orchestral resources. “A seventeen-piece band against a choir is an unequal struggle,” he says. “The singing is easily blotted out. Two trumpets, two trombones, with all the mutes – we’ve got what we need.” And having worked with the Crouch End Festival Chorus before, he knows they will inhabit the idiom naturally. “They have a lot of skill and experience in working with drum-kits, which is important. In effect the conductor of the orchestral element is the drummer’s hi-hat cymbal, and David Temple gets this, which is great.” Indeed, Temple readily accepts that some of the control of his choir passes out of his hands when a drummer is in operation, but he’s well used to resisting the temptation to make a competition of it, from tours with the likes of Noel Gallagher and the Crouch End patron, Sir Ray Davies, and in countless studio sessions for film soundtracks. The Sacred Concert is a different thing again. “This is music to be learned, not notes to be ‘read’. All I know is that I have never had such fun in any piece of music I have conducted.”

Russell Davies is a writer and broadcaster with a family connection to Crouch End Festival Chorus

Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concert

Saturday 17 July 2021  7.30pm
Alexandra Palace Theatre, Alexandra Palace Way, London N22 7AY

Ellington Sacred Concert
Philip Glass Three Songs
Eric Whitacre i thank You God for most this amazing day
Morten Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium
Lillie Harris Margaret

Crouch End Festival Chorus
Roland Perrin & The Blue Planet Orchestra
David Temple conductor
Zoë Brookshaw soprano

LINK: Book Tickets through Alexandra Palace

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