In many, if not most, Utah Symphony pops concerts where there are guest artists, the orchestra is reduced to playing background, sometimes reaching the point of being superfluous.
Not Friday. In a celebration of Duke Ellington's music hosted by his grand-daughter, Mercedes Ellington, the orchestra, singers and dancers worked together as a cohesive whole to create what can only be described as a great show.The orchestra was alternatively impish and lush, the four dancers were polished and fun to watch (great costumes!) and the two singers harmonized well. The result was an entertaining, substantive package, as stimulating and satisfying as a seven-course candlelight dinner.
The show, titled "Sophisticated Ellington," was the creation of Mercedes Ellington and producer Ty Johnson. They commissioned orchestral arrangements of some of Duke Ellington's compositions (he wrote more than 3,000 pieces), including singing and dancing and narration about Ellington's life.
The show is a good education for those unfamiliar with Ellington's life and music, and a trip down memory lane for the initiated. "Satin Doll," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" - they were all represented, along with a few of his more obscure compositions.
The two movements of "The River" presented Friday, for example, showed Ellington's avant garde side. His was a curious nature, always seeking the next new thing.
He wrote music on shirtsleeves, napkins, matchbook covers - whatever was at hand when the muse struck him. As quoted by Mercedes, he said, "You're going to bed and see the piano, and it begins flirting with you. You sit down and play a few chords, and the next thing you know it's 7 a.m."
The first half comprised mostly hit songs. "Caravan" was particularly fun, with the dancers - two male, two female, two black, two white - coming out in Arabian costume and performing a Middle Eastern-type dance. It ended with Ellington's signature song, "Take the `A' Train" (which Lawrence Welk once memorably introduced on his show as "Take a Train.")
Acting associate conductor Bruce Hangen was almost as much fun to watch as the dancers, with his swinging hips and broad smile. He even took a few turns on the makeshift dance floor in front of the orchestra with Mercedes Ellington.
The second half was somewhat more diverse, with unfamiliar pieces such as "Kings of the Magi" from Ellington's suite "Three Black Kings."
The orchestral arrangements, plus a small rhythm section and saxophone section, worked well for Ellington's music. Even his original swing band, with its precision and smooth tone, was sometimes likened to a symphony orchestra. What's more, his compositions covered a wide variety of musical styles.
"He spent his entire life breaking rules and crossing boundaries," his granddaughter said.