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Civic Orchestra of Chicago

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CIVIC ORCHESTRA OF CHICAGO

The condescension that has long relegated great unclassifiable American masters such as Duke Ellington and George Gershwin to the fringe of the orchestral repertoire or to pops concerts alongside hacks like Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Williams still prevails in most major orchestras--not to mention their apprentice ensembles, which often are weaned on a steady diet of mainstream mush. That's why it's refreshing and surprising to see Ellington represented in the Civic Orchestra's season finale, and by a work written at the height of his creative powers. With Black, Brown, and Beige (which in 1943 inaugurated a series of annual concerts at Carnegie Hall showcasing Ellington's jazz band) Ellington was shooting for no less than a musical history of Africans in America. Half a century later, the piece--even in the whitewashed half-hour arrangement by Maurice Peress that the Civic will play--remains an inventive, layered accomplishment, ravishing in its blend of sonorities, democratic in its embrace of vernacular idioms, and far more in touch with life than, say, the coldly elegant Elliott Carter constructions that are regarded as the epitome of mid-20th-century American music. It has flaws, to be sure: the path from slavery to emancipation to Harlem bourgeoisie, unfortunately referred to by the dark-to-light progression in the title, is simplistic; and the jingoistic quote from "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the end, meant to rouse a wartime audience, is outdated. Still, Ellington's conviction, melodic gifts, and the sly way he clothed jazz in a symphonic guise are irrefutably impressive. Also on the Civic's program, which seems intended to appeal to the African-American patrons of this south-side venue, is Gershwin's "Catfish Row," the concert suite from Porgy and Bess. Ironically, Gershwin's operatic depiction of picaresque life among downtrodden blacks was precisely what Ellington was railing against. The Civic, whose alumni can be found in orchestras all over the world, will be under the direction of William Eddins, the CSO's outstanding assistant conductor; ace CSO clarinetist Larry Combs is the soloist in Debussy's Rhapsody for Clarinet and Orchestra and in Copland's clarinet concerto, which Benny Goodman premiered 50 years ago. Sunday, 3 PM, New Regal Theater, 1645 E. 79th; 312-294-3000. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): William Eddins uncredited photo.

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