The Sacred Concert

Duke Ellington
The Sacred Concert

Stan Tracey Orchestra
St Paul’s Cathedral Choir

Norma Winstone (solo voice)
Niall Hoskin (solo voice)
Will Gaines (tap dancer)
Canon Bill Hall (narrator)
Stan Tracey (piano/leader)


Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 4 July, 2006
Venue: St Paul's Cathedral, London

Duke Ellington was a composer on more than nodding terms with the sublime, and his music needed only a slight shift in emphasis to turn worldly ecstasy into the godly kind. This, we are told, is a man who had read the bible cover to cover four times before his twenty-first birthday, and whose religious devotion was expressed as an enormous appetite for life in its richness. The first of his three ‘sacred concerts’ was a commission for Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and led to two further suites, the last of which received its premiere in Westminster Abbey in 1973, shortly before the Duke’s death.

The breathtaking, echoing spaces of St Paul’s had resounded to Ellington’s sacred music once before, in 1982. That unfortunate occasion was filmed by Channel 4, and was stuffed with showbiz luminaries including Rod Steiger, Tony Bennett, Jacques Loussier, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who, according to Stan Tracey, made repeated references to “Duke Wellington” in his narration.

The present concert, part of the City of London Festival, made a deep impression on several participants and attendees, including Tracey and Canon Bill Hall of Durham, who resolved that Ellington’s music should be treated with the solemn respect that it deserved. Their selection of numbers from the three sacred concerts has been doing the rounds for some fifteen years now, but St Paul’s was always its ultimate destination.

From the resounding baritone saxophone which opened ‘In The Beginning, God’, it was clear that this was a special occasion. When the rest of the orchestra joined, along with the honeyed baritone of Niall Hoskin, it came close to sensory overload, the band’s sharp attack surrounded by a corona of reverberant sound. Tracey had assembled a mature cast of artists who performed Ellington’s music with the utmost devotion and integrity. There was something of the ascetic to Hoskin, lending gravitas to the spoken voice-overs on ‘Ain’t But The One’. Norma Winstone was simply stunning in ‘Come Sunday’, inflecting each syllable with such potent meaning. The sound engineers worked miracles with an impossible space; heaven knows what it sounded like at the back of the nave, but in the dome it was clear enough.

There were flaws, though. Ellington’s sacred music is not all of his best; even in this selection there were longueurs, most notably the choral number ‘Something ‘Bout Believing’, while a frenetic tenor sax solo rescued the uninspired recitation of the books of the Old Testament. Canon Hall’s linking commentary was erudite and well-meant, but served only to break the rapt atmosphere generated by the music. And tap-dancer Will Gaines’s entrance for the concluding ‘David Danced Before The Lord’ was rather undersold, though the old stager had soon worked the crowd back up to delighted excitement.

The sublime moments more than made up for any transitory failings, and this was Stan Tracey’s night. Though, like Duke Ellington, he kept to the background, restricting himself to a couple of well-placed chords here and there, his spiky presence was audible throughout, preventing this from becoming any exercise in mere nostalgia. He accompanied sax-player Peter King in ‘Come Sunday’; and in that hushed alto, framed by spare piano chords, you heard two lifetimes of music floating up to whatever deity happened to be listening.

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