The Philharmonic Takes the Duke Train


The American symphony orchestra casts its eye jealously on Duke Ellington. He made the orchestra his instrument and played it with an unprecedented virtuosity. And to add to Ellington’s inspirational value now, he was at his greatest as an orchestra builder, leader and composer during the Great Depression and World War II.

So there was evidently something to be gained from the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s season opening gala at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, beyond the fact that Ellington wrote some of America’s most popular and most respected music. It was titled “Audra Swings Ellington,” since Audra McDonald was on hand to sing five Ellington songs. But that was only one part of a program devoted almost exclusively to Ellington. The Sultans of Swing, a New York swing band, joined the Philharmonic on stage throughout the evening, except in the one non-Ellington work, Ravel’s “La Valse.” Along with music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, Quincy Jones also conducted.

For all the sincere admiration expressed for Ellington, there is also a reason his music doesn’t show up very often, at least in its original guise, on symphony programs. Ellington’s bands were not classical orchestras but a collection of individual musicians for whom every piece and every arrangement was specifically made. To transfer Ellington to a formal orchestra requires translation, and just about everything is lost in the process unless an interesting composer brings his own voice in as well. We hear Ellington all the time in concert hall, but it is the Ellington who influenced John Adams, John Harbison, Gunther Schuller and numerous other American composers.


On Wednesday the Philharmonic was often superfluous. That may have been part of the point, since gala programs are intended to raise money, not spend it on expensive rehearsal time. And the program must fit the tone of an occasion meant to attract big spenders who come to bid at auctions, dine and dance as well as hear a concert.

Thus the great Ellington moments came from the Sultans of Swing and the set of six Ellington numbers arranged by the leader of the 16-member big band, trumpeter David Berger, and conducted by Jones. Just how close these players came to the Ellington style, especially in “Mood Indigo” and “Concerto for Cootie,” was indicated by Jones’ own surprised reactions. Clearly, from his clumsy acknowledgments of the players, he hadn’t worked much with the band, but they responded easily to him. On the few occasions in the set that the Philharmonic entered in, it was for bloated, pointless backup.

McDonald brought her own character to her Ellington set, each song turned into an event with a strong emotional buildup. It is next to impossible not to enjoy hearing McDonald sing almost anything; her vocalise in “On a Turquoise Cloud” had a rich sensuality; in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” she demonstrated all the vivacious flare needed to make an audience happy.

But McDonald sold each song just slightly too eagerly, the amplification (bad all night) sold her voice too cheaply, and the arrangements by Larry Hochman were dull in the way Broadway has of watering down originality. This time, the Sultans and the Philharmonic were superfluous. Salonen was the considerate conductor.

Speaking to the audience, Salonen joked that he found it amusing that there was “this Finnish guy” on stage telling an American audience about Ellington, but he was happy to do so anyway.

And in “Depk” from the “Far East Suite,” which opened the program and “Harlem Suite,” which closed it, Salonen needed no apology. He easily finds Ellington’s rhythmic grove, and, as a composer himself, he seems to have a special affinity to Ellington’s exceptional finesse with instrumental color and rich harmonic sense.

But these aren’t the best examples of Ellington. “Harlem,” which was written for Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, suffers the straitjacket of a classical symphony, less a meeting of two worlds than a sense of mutual exoticism. As Gershwin did in “Rhapsody in Blue,” which this suite resembles in form, Ellington saves the piece with a great tune at the end.


Salonen presented the music without fuss, and that helped. Likewise Salonen was the gracious accompanist for “Pretty and the Wolf,” which Jones narrated.

Salonen did fuss, however, over “La Valse,” which he said he programmed because Ravel was Ellington’s favorite composer and as an example of the Philharmonic’s noted depth of programming. No, he corrected himself, it was because it’s a good piece. And here the Philharmonic shined.

Had Ellington been in the hall, I’d bet he would have wanted to hear a lot more like that. That was the kind of orchestral virtuosity he appreciated.