The Buffalo Philharmonic's two-week Duke Ellington Festival concludes this weekend with the performance of two of Ellington's major orchestral scores, a suite from a 1970 ballet score "The River," and the 1943 "Black, Brown and Beige."
In Duke's autobiography, he sees "The River" progressing from a spring to rapids, lake, waterfall and whirlpool, as a loose metaphor for the growth of an infant to maturity. Almost all Ellington scores exist in a variety of editions. This one is by Ron Collier, from which Music Director JoAnn Falletta has deleted three of its nine movements.
Beginning with a wonderfully probing horn solo, Falletta led the richly orchestrated opening "Spring" movement assertively but without excess drama. Especially effective was the prominence she gave to the rising harp arpeggios at the close. The spiritual center of "The River" is the fourth movement, "Lake," in which a descending three-note motif is expanded and extrapolated by Ellington to create a serene and flowingly lyrical evocation of calmness and serenity.
The more energetic "Falls" and "Whirlpool" movements rely on jazz underpinnings to create the suggested moods, and the concluding "River" movement expresses its pulsing, flowing momentum appealingly, concluding with a fetching fade-out pizzicato on string bass.
While harmless hints of Duke's jazz background can often be detected, they are a bit out of context in the early "Meander" and "Giggling Rapids" movements, where they seem lifted directly from one of his big jazz band scores.
"Black, Brown and Beige" was written in 1943 for Ellington's first Carnegie Hall concert. Considerably condensed from the original, it was called by the composer a "tonal parallel to the history of the American Negro." Altogether stronger and more assertive than "The River," its three movements are played without pause and rely heavily on recurring pounding percussion passages as a virtual framework for the composition.
The dominant feeling of the music is wildly declamatory with a lot of wah-wah brass, but there are contrasting quieter moments including effective quotes from "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and the always tantalizing "Come Sunday," played successively by cello, saxophone and violin. The work rises to a tumultuous percussive climax, then feints its way to a teasingly quieter conclusion.
These two Ellington works will join the entire Ellington Pops program of last week, and will be released on a Naxos recording, date to be announced.
The non-Ellington half of the concert showcased the amazing technique and winning musicianship of duo pianists Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss. Their performance in the beguilingly witty Concerto in D minor for two Pianos by Francis Poulenc picked up and subtly reflected the fact that while Ellington was moving from jazz toward symphonic writing, Poulenc was a superb classically trained composer who peppered this concerto with dashes of jazz influence. The performance by pianists and orchestra was superb, and a great crowd pleaser.
So was the concert's opener, Saint-Saens' equally amusing "Carnival of the Animals," where the two pianists and orchestra give amusing, musically very deft imitations and tributes to the lion, chicken, elephant, donkey, cuckoo and the always loving portrait of The Swan. Saint-Saens' hat is also tipped to the pianists, who extended the episode with some improvised quotations from famous piano concertos.
The spotlight may have been on Ellington, but the pianists, orchestra and Falletta made the other half of this program an equal treat.