Review: Audra McDonald and Dr. Phillips Center Make History with Duke Ellington's BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE

The Tony Winner helps to write a new chapter in the incredible 80-year saga of arguably Ellington's most significant — yet long-misunderstood — masterpiece.

By: Jan. 27, 2022
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Review: Audra McDonald and Dr. Phillips Center Make History with Duke Ellington's BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE

It's not every day that Audra McDonald stands twenty feet in front of you and says, "Tonight, we are all a part of history."

Then again, it's not every day that music history gets made in Orlando - real-deal, textbook-worthy history - so when it does happen, I reckon Audra McDonald is as eager to be a part of it as anyone else.

Indeed, on Wednesday night, the Dr. Phillips Center wrote a new chapter in the epilogue of Duke Ellington's life with their much-anticipated staging of Ellington's BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE inside the brand-new Steinmetz Hall.

The story starts in 1943, when Duke Ellington performed what he believed to be his masterpiece - the history of Black Americans told through jazz - at Carnegie Hall. Audiences, accustomed to Ellington's breezy swing standards, weren't sure what to think about the 48-minute suite on horns. Critics, meanwhile, savaged it as unworthy of a classical stage. (The irony: white critics taking jazz to task because it wasn't "European enough.")

Duke never performed BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE in its entirety again.

After his death, Duke's son Mercer joined with former Ellington bandmate Randall Keith Horton to add symphonic orchestration to the suite. The idea was that the symphony could expand on the jazz band's performance and engage in conversation with it - a notion they hoped would inspire someone to stage it.

Last night, nearly 80 years after that Carnegie Hall performance, it finally happened. In Orlando. With Audra McDonald. And jazz musicians from New York's Lincoln Center. And London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Daytona's incredibly talented Bethune-Cookman University Concert Chorale was there too, along with The Jazz Orchestra at Dr. Phillips Center. And it was as momentous and meaningful and beautiful as Ellington might ever have hoped.

The evening opened with extended selections from Ellington's SACRED MUSIC, a collection of works that exquisitely contemplate the role of faith and love in the Black American experience. Carefully curated and sequenced, the varied segments kept audiences swept up in emotion and grandeur all night as soloists, instrumentalists, choral performances, and even a tap dancer (the indefatigable Leonardo Sandoval) took the stage.

The Bethune-Cookman singers powerfully wrestled with questions of freedom and forgiveness from the Black perspective, but there were moments of real levity too, like the swingin' recital of each book of the Bible.

The incomparable Audra McDonald first took the stage with solos that immediately sounded like they belong to one of her own shows. Take, for instance, her mashup of Ellington's "My Love" and "Heaven." Sure enough, she told us, those songs will be a part of her repertoire from now on, even though she had only just learned of them in preparing for tonight. ("So thank you, Orlando," she said with a laugh.) Then soloist Brandon Hood joined McDonald for a duet of operatic splendor, his voice going as low as hers can high.

Before the main event, McDonald joined conductor Edwin Outwater for a pre-performance lecture of sorts, a truly helpful sampling of the musical signposts in BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE. Allegoric portions of score were sampled so that the audience could decipher the sophisticated symbology of Ellington's complex composition to come. Different instruments were utilized to suggest the open fields in Africa, cultural contributions from the West Indies, and even the busy traffic of 1940s Harlem.

"It's like class," McDonald joked with a wink. "It's good."

Yes it was. BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE is a splendid, stirring, captivating concerto grosso. Ellington's nuanced and intricate orchestrations are layered, challenging, and drenched in meaning, while Horton's symphonic arrangements inspire even deeper contemplation. And McDonald's heavenly voice proved the perfect complement to Ellington's spiritual themes.

The Black experience is not my experience, nor is jazz theory within my field of expertise. But the impact of this music - its beauty, its thesis, its historical significance - was clearly felt intensely throughout the auditorium, and certainly in my own seat. The 48 minutes flew by in BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE, so named for its three roughly 15-minute segments, each further subdivided into three sections, lending a navigable sense of digestibility to even the most unacquainted listener.

Astoundingly, among those sitting in the room with us was Mr. Randall Keith Horton himself, whose work - heard in full by a live audience at long last - was received with rapturous applause by patrons who knew how special this evening was and how lucky we all are to have been there.

Staging this historical milestone is unquestionably a statement by Dr. Phillips Center - a statement about the worth of arts and culture in Orlando, about Steinmetz Hall's entrée into that scene, and about the Center itself as a cultural force to be reckoned with. Coming at the end of a nearly two-week blitz of grand-opening festivities for Steinmetz, the event represented a major step forward for the arts company not even ten years since its big debut.

To that end, DPC CEO Katherine Ramsberger appeared onstage alongside Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings to announce that this very program - BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE and SACRED MUSIC - will soon embark on an international tour produced by Dr. Phillips Center. Look out world, Orlando's coming! And with a healthy lineup of symphonic and various other events slated for Steinmetz in the future (along with its neighboring Walt Disney and Jim & Alexis Pugh Theaters), the world has plenty coming to Orlando too.

Note: Dr. Phillips Center requires all patrons and ushers to wear face masks in Steinmetz Hall. On stage, those who can wear masks while performing do so; others are unmasked.

What did you think of Duke Ellington's BLACK, BROWN & BEIGE and SACRED MUSIC at Dr. Phillips Center's new Steinmetz Hall? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.


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