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Music-Theater-Dance

Symphony revisits work of jazz great Duke Ellington

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    Band leader Duke Ellington and his big band during an appearance in Munich in January of 1967.

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    Duke Ellington in Toledo in 1956.

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Jazz aficionados will get a homecoming of sorts at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle Friday and Saturday, when the Toledo Symphony performs two pieces by Duke Ellington.

Ellington, considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, died in New York on May 24, 1974.

A little more than 62 years ago, Ellington became the first nonclassical artist to perform on the Peristyle stage when he and his famed big band did a concert there on Jan. 9, 1956.

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Duke Ellington in Toledo in 1956.

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“The sound is going to be different than what you hear from a symphony,” promises outgoing resident conductor Sara Jobin, who is conducting both performances and winding down her three years with the Toledo Symphony.

Merwin Siu, artistic administrator, agreed that Ellington is one of the greatest American composers of all time. Some musicologists put his body of work up there with J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Siu added.

“Duke’s just an incredibly prolific composer and a fearless composer,” Siu said. “He was just so curious.”

Both shows begin at 7 p.m. with a lecture by Siu. Music follows at 8 p.m.

The shows are the last two offerings of the inaugural North Star Festival, a special three-month collaboration between the symphony, the Toledo Opera Association, and the Toledo Lucas County Public Library that began during Black History Month. Its purpose was to highlight some of the many historical musical contributions of African-Americans and celebrate Toledo’s history as a safe haven along the Underground Railroad.

The Peristyle is at 2445 Monroe St. Tickets, which are $25 to $55, can be purchased at bit.ly/​2HvgYEg.

Ellington performed multiple times in Toledo over the years at iconic venues such as the Paramount Theatre, the Aku-Aku, and the old Toledo Sports Arena. His band’s 1956 concert at the Peristyle carried this headline above a lengthy review in The Blade: “Audience Is Different, Rules Rewritten As Peristyle Rocks and Rolls — To Jazz.”

Alan F. Schoedel, who jokingly referred to himself below his byline as a staff writer “Turned Hepcat for a Night,” said in his review that some Peristyle concert traditions were shattered by that show.

From what he could tell, the old guard of highbrow classical music listeners was “completely engulfed in the wave of hand-clapping, whistling, and stamping that followed some of the Duke’s more frenzied numbers.”

For the Friday and Saturday night shows, the symphony will open with a jazzy version of Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker Suite, arranged by Ellington and fellow jazz composer Billy Strayhorn for a 1960 album.

The show will end with Ellington’s tone poem, Harlem, inspired by the diversity of Harlem, New York in 1950.

“It’s a love song for Harlem,” Jobin said.

In between will be the world premiere of Latin Jazz Suite for Trumpet and Orchestra by Alice Gomez, a work inspired by the Cuban-jazz movement of the 1940s and 1950s, and Four Parables, a 1983 jazz, blues, and classical hybrid written by Toledo composer Paul Schoenfield.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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