Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 30
"Ellington at 100"
Grieg: Selections from the incidental music to Peer Gynt
Ellington/Strayhorn: The Peer Gynt Suites
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 24, 1999
Seiji Ozawa, conductor
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with Wynton Marsalis
Jayne West, soprano
Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra:
Wynton Marsalis, Music Director, trumpet
Seneca Black, trumpet
Ryan Kisor, trumpet
Marcus Printup, trumpet
Wayne Goodman, trombone
Wycliffe Gordon, trombone
Ron Westray, trombone
Wess "Warmdaddy" Anderson, alto saxophone, clarinet
Ted Nash, alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Walter Blanding, Jr., tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet
Victor Goines, clarinet, tenor saxophone
Joe Temperley, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet
Farid Barron, piano
Rodney Whitaker, bass
Herlin Riley, drums
Background on the Music
In 1965 Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington appeared at Tanglewood with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, a concert that resulted in a best-selling RCA Victor LP.
34 years later Ellington's life achievement, and his 100th birthday, were celebrated at Tanglewood with a special concert in which Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (now known as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra) appeared together to perform selections from the incidental music to Henrik Ibsen's play Peer Gynt that Edvard Grieg composed in 1874, alongside the versions of these same pieces that Ellington and his collaborator Billy Strayhorn created almost a century later, in 1960, for an album called Swingin' Suites by Edward E. and Edward G.
Grieg composed his incidental music at the request of Ibsen himself for the first stage production of a vast, sprawling play that Ibsen had written as a "poetic drama," a play for reading, not performance. Productions of Peer Gynt were as few and far between then as they are now; the play requires a large cast and complicated stagecraft as the action ranges from Norway to Morocco and Egypt, from realism to dream and surrealism. So Grieg extracted eight movements from his 90-minute score and organized them into two short suites. In doing so, Grieg ignored the original sequence and context of the pieces in order to follow a purely musical logic.
The pieces became Grieg's most popular work and the music became ubiquitous in popular culture; anyone who has seen a cartoon or a television commercial will recognize some of the tunes whether or not they have ever heard of Grieg or Ibsen. Jazz versions of some of this music existed long before Ellington and Strayhorn turned to it. But their version did create a controversy. Detractors felt the collaborators had plundered, if not desecrated, art music. And even some Ellington fans felt the music was derivative and pretentious and not really jazz; they didn't want Ellington to go high-falutin'. All of this was nothing compared to the reaction in Norway, where the Grieg Foundation succeeded in banning sale of the recording, broadcasting, or public performance for nearly a decade. The Ellington/Strayhorn version was considered vandalism of a national treasure. Ellington was wounded by this, and the Duke Ellington Orchestra seems never to have given a complete live performance of the jazz version.
A recent study by Walter van de Leur has established that the early drafts of the charts for four of the five movements of the jazz version are in Strayhorn's hand, so he must have been the prime mover in creating the suite. The chart for In The Hall of the Mountain King is in Ellington's hand.
In 2011 the journal Music & Politics published an interesting scholarly article by Anna Celenza which argues that Strayhorn did organize the suite around sequences in the play as they were presented in a 1951 American theatrical adaptation by Paul Green that had starred John Garfield in the title role. Strayhorn's choices of colors and moods, she asserts, reflect specific contexts of the play in Green's version.
Whether or not this is the case, Ellington and Strayhorn were interested in something quite different from "swinging" classical tunes, or jazzing them up. They wanted to translate Grieg's music, and Grieg's response to Ibsen, into another century and another culture, and they certainly succeeded - the music packs an emotional wallop that Grieg's music must have had in its original context, before Grieg divorced it from that context, and before countless performances and recordings further diluted its impact. Grieg intended In the Hall of the Mountain King to be an ironic caricature of Norwegian self-sufficiency and referred to the music as a "cowpat," a dimension of his work that no one today is likely to catch on to.
The sequence performed at Tanglewood began with Grieg's Prelude to Act I and Morning (originally the Prelude to Act IV), played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Seiji Ozawa. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis followed with the Ellington/Strayhorn version of Morning. The following movements were played with the original version in alternation with the adaptations - Solvieg's Song, Åse's Death, and In the Hall of the Mountain King. Soprano Jayne West sang the original version of Solvieg's wistful song, and Marsalis recited some lines from Ibsen before Åse's Death in a new translation by Gerry Bamman and Irene B. Berman. At the climax of the Boston Symphony's performance of In the Hall of the Mountain King, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra zestfully chimed in with the music and the spoken lines Grieg assigned to the chorus of trolls, goblins and gnomes - "Shall we kill him?" "Shall I chop off his fingers?" "Let me rip out his hair!" "Shall I bite off his bottom?" "Or boil him to a broth?" "Shall we skewer him?"
This concert was characteristic of Tanglewood's sense of adventure, but it was not an "only at Tanglewood event." Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in fact toured this program around the circuit of major American orchestras and also took it to Europe and to Russia, where they played it in the Kremlin. The performance with the New York Philharmonic was telecast on Live From Lincoln Center.
But there were ties that made this Tanglewood concert special. Ozawa, Marsalis and Jayne West are all alumni of the Tanglewood Music Center. And Ozawa and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra had collaborated with Marsalis in a series of educational videos called Marsalis on Music filmed at Tanglewood.
Jayne West is a Boston-based soprano whose pure-toned and elegant singing has enlivened countless New England performances for more than two decades. Career highlights include a recording of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, her portrayal of the Countess in Peter Sellars's famous production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, telecast internationally and preserved on DVD, and the East Coast premiere of Elliot Goldenthal's Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio with the Boston Symphony under Ozawa.
And there is a curious little footnote to this project. Playwright Paul Green, whose American adaptation of Ibsen's play may have inspired Billy Strayhorn, was the father of Betsy Moyer, a longtime member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus; her husband William Moyer was a BSO trombonist who became the orchestra's personnel manager after he retired from playing.
"Peer Gynt was a fascinating lesson in Ellington's genius for transforming familiar material by deploying the vivid characters of his individual soloists as well as the rich sound of his full band. Where Grieg illuminated Morning with flute, clarinet and bassoon, Ellington called upon not just any woodwinds but Paul Gonsalves's tenor sax, Jimmy Hamilton's clarinet, and Harry Carney's baritone sax. Walter Blanding, Jr., Victor Goines, and Joe Temperley were never less than convincing in shouldering these respective roles for the Lincoln Center, and Wycliffe Gordon and the Lincoln Center trombone section were magnificent, especially during a plunger-muted response to soprano Jayne West's rendering of Solvieg's Song with the BSO. Ellington's arrangement turned Anitra's Dance from a waltz to 4/4 swing and created a similar groove for In The Hall of the Mountain King, which elicited a whimsical reading in response from the BSO. Most interesting of all was Åse's Death, which Marsalis has opened up to sound more like a New Orleans funeral. Seiji Ozawa clearly enjoyed [these] exchanges."
-Bob Blumenthal, Boston Globe
Statement from Jazz at Lincoln Center:
Jazz at Lincoln Center is dedicated to inspiring and growing audiences for jazz. With the world-renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and a comprehensive array of guest artists, Jazz at Lincoln Center advances a unique vision for the continued development of the art of jazz by producing a year-round schedule of performance, education, and broadcast events for audiences of all ages. These productions include concerts, national and international tours, residencies, weekly national radio programs, recordings, publications, an annual high school jazz band competition and festival, a band director academy, jazz appreciation curriculum for students, music publishing, children's concerts, lectures, adult education courses, student and educator workshops, and interactive websites. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, Executive Director Greg Scholl, and Chairman Robert Appel, Jazz at Lincoln Center produces thousands of events each season in its home in New York City, Frederick P. Rose Hall, and around the world. For more information, visit www.jalc.org.