by Steven Pisano
What could be more sophisticated or elegant at Christmastime than Duke Ellington's music played in Harlem? The Apollo Theater rang in the season this week with Ellington at Christmas, a new holiday confection featuring the David Berger Jazz Orchestra and dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem School, in addition to a range of soloists. And yes, I did take the A train to get there.
The first half presented Ellington’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite,” with arrangements by Billy Strayhorn. This isn't just a jazzed-up version of the classic original, but in many ways a new work, riffing on one of the greatest pieces of holiday music. The orchestra played the fast sections well, but they struggled a bit with the slower segments, sometimes losing the musical tension. But, man, can those sax players blow! For the “Peanut Brittle Brigade” and the “Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers),” young dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem School came on stage in festive red costumes.
The second half of the show presented selections from Ellington’s Sacred Music, written in 1965 and 1968. Not intended as liturgical music, the songs nonetheless have Christian themes, though without the true fervor of more traditional religious music. Norm Lewis, a handsome baritone who this past May took over the starring role in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, was charming as he sang to and about God, at times looking soulfully upward, at others out at the audience, with a charismatic glint in his eye.
With credits ranging from Broadway’s Sophisticated Ladies to La Boheme and Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera, Priscilla Baskerville thrilled with her at times tender, at times passionate singing of “Heaven” and “Almighty God.” Lizz Wright, looking ravishing in a stunning blue ruffled dress, rounded out the trio of vocalists, with her gospel-tinged performance of “Tell Me It’s the Truth.” The Arts High School Advance Choir of Newark lent impressive vocal support to several songs, and tap dance whiz Jason Samuels Smith used his feet to entertain on “David Danced Before the Lord with All His Might.”
At this holiday concert, there weren’t any kick-dancing chorus girls, no caravans of exotic animals, no computer-driven light shows. Just some good, jazzy Christmas music, both secular and sacred. And when the crowds spilled out of the Apollo onto 125th Street, they were smiling and laughing, hugging and kissing each other. The Duke had touched them all with the New York holiday spirit, one and all.
All photos by Steven Pisano. More photos here.