The Duke Ellington Nutcracker

Last night I opened up my copy of Time Out New York for the first time in a couple months. I have a subscription, but I’ve been so busy with classes, that I was basically tossing it in the recycling as soon as I got it. But I’m done with classes (yay!), so I flipped it open to see what was happening this weekend.

One of the first things I saw was that Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) were performing Duke Ellington’s version of the Nutcracker Suite at Lincoln Center this weekend with the New York Philharmonic. Um, wow. I’ve been a fan of Marsalis for a while, and my respect for him and his orchestra skyrocketed after performing his piece All Rise. But the concert was at Lincoln Center and the tickets were kind of expensive.

I was hemming and hawing, and decided to go check out the web page this morning to learn more about the show. Then I saw the magic words: “Student Rush Tickets”. $12 for day-of seats, available online, and I’ve got my Columbia ID now! That made it a no brainer.

The first half of the concert was kind of eh. El Salon Mexico, by Aaron Copland (which was pretty identifiably Copland from the first two bars), and Symphony No. 2, by Christopher Rouse, who was in the audience.

The second half was awesome, though. The way they did it was that the New York Philharmonic played the original piece, as Tchaikovsky wrote it. Then the JLCO played it Ellington’s way. It made for a tremendously satisfying musical experience. I know the Nutcracker Suite really well, of course, and it was fun to hear the old standard again, even if it is kind of precious.

But then hearing how Ellington riffed on the themes was awesome. One of the things that I knew intellectually about jazz was that it’s about riffing off standard tunes and taking them in new and unexpected directions. But because everybody is riffing, you often only get a couple snippets of the tune, and if you’re somebody like me that’s not familiar with the original , you don’t appreciate the artistry of what they’re constructing. So hearing the original tune straight-up and then the expanded jazz version really made me appreciate what Ellington had done, and how he’d taken the themes of the Nutcracker and done interesting things with them. It was very cool, and of course the JLCO are excellent excellent musicians.

Then afterwards, of course they got a standing ovation, so we got an encore. Yay! And because the conductor had mentioned earlier in the performance that today was the 164th birthday of the New York Philharmonic, the JLCO played Happy Birthday jazz-style. And, again, because the original tune is so familiar, I was better able to catch all the references to it, the riffs off of it, etc. Wynton threw a tremendous trumpet solo in the middle too. Man, he’s amazing.

We kept clapping after that, so we got a second encore. This one they did what they did in San Francisco, where they got a couple of the orchestra members involved, with one of the basses playing the bass line, a trombone player doing a solo, and then the bass player facing off with the JLCO bass in a bass solo contest. Fun fun stuff – I’d seen it before, but it’s still entertaining.

Very cool evening – I would have been happy to pay full price for these tickets, so to have gotten them for $12 is truly ridiculous. Plus, they didn’t check my student ID when I picked them up! Such a deal!

P.S. In other news, I am a total snob. I was really disappointed by the quality of the New York Philharmonic. I know this is a holiday concert, so it’s not the best players, but the playing was downright sloppy in places. Some of that can be blamed on the conductor, who wasn’t very clear, but there were lots of bits where the section wasn’t even together with itself. I’m a bit biased because I performed with them, but I think the San Francisco Symphony is definitely better – better unity, better tone quality, better musicality. Plus MTT rocks, of course.

It’s interesting to me how having gotten the chance to experience some really great stuff like the French Laundry or the chorus has really spoiled my ability to enjoy merely good stuff. When you’ve had the best, the good doesn’t quite satisfy any more. Alas. I know, I know, tough life.

P.P.S. I think I have some sort of event or outing planned every night for the next five days. Think I was ready to be done with classes?

Posted in nyc

4 thoughts on “The Duke Ellington Nutcracker

  1. Oh man, I am jealous. Jealous jealous jealous. On many counts. Wynton Marsalis! Student tickets! NY Phil! Lincoln Center! Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite! (have a copy on MP3 if you want it) And being done!

    Argh. I’ll be down to hang out in the City soon.

    I suppose one reason why I love jazz is that the harmonies are so non-obvious; I can play a lot of things by ear, but the chordings are complex enough in jazz that it gives my brain way more than it can chew on in real time.

  2. Yeah, I wrote this post mostly to make you jealous.

    The non-obvious harmonies are great, but to the untrained ear, they often just sound unpleasant. But when placed in context, it made more sense to me. In one of the movements, they take the main theme and four different instruments take a pass at it, each playing it dissonantly. Without having just heard the original, I might have thought it was just weird, but because it was clear they were altering the original harmonies to do something new, it was revealed as playfulness.

  3. I’m glad to hear support for this theory about what the point of jazz is. I think the problem that it has for mainstream listeners is that nobody knows the “standards” anymore. They’re totally unknown.

    I was riding in the shuttle bus one afternoon and the driver had the radio on the jazz station and at one point I suddenly realized: is that… is that the Spiderman theme song!? And it was. And it was really, really cool.

    I love things like Tori Amos’s cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit, or Jonathan Coulton’s version of Baby Got Back. I think that what jazz artists need to do is start working with pop songs from the 80s and 90s instead of the 30s and 40s…

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