Grammy-nominated bassist and Duke University Professor John Brown and his 15-piece big band will join forces with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival (NCShakes) to present performances of Such Sweet Thunder in March and April of this year.
The suite features compositions inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Macbeth, Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra. In this first-ever collaboration, the two companies will present a series of performances of Such Sweet Thunder, with each piece introduced by NCShakes actors. The band will perform transcriptions of the original pieces exactly as the Ellington/Strayhorn team wrote them.
Such Sweet Thunder will premier in High Point, N.C., on Friday, March 30, followed by performances in Charlotte on Saturday, March 31, and in Durham on Thursday, April 26. The High Point and Durham events will include ballroom table seating, with the ticket price including tabled hors d’oeuvres and beer and wine. A cash liquor bar will also be offered.
Friday, March 30, at 8p.m., International Ballroom, located at the International Home Furnishings Center (210 E. Commerce Ave., High Point; use Green Drive entrance). Individual tickets are $75, or two for $140; a complete 10-person table is $650. Purchase through the High Point Theatre Box Office at www.highpointtheatre.org or call 336-887-3001, Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Hotel discounts are also available at the J.H. Adams Inn, Best Western High Point and Courtyard Marriott High Point. Upon registration, use code NCSHAKES.
Saturday, March 31, at 8 p.m., Booth Playhouse at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center (130 N. Tryon Street, Charlotte). Individual tickets: $35. Purchase tickets through the theatre box office at www.blumenthalarts.org or call 704-372-1000, Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Thursday, April 26, 7 p.m., The Cotton Room at Golden Belt (807 East Main Street, Durham). Individual tickets: $75, or two for $140. Reserve tickets by calling 919.530.8380 or visit www.jbjazz.com.
Ellington became interested in a suite inspired by Shakespeare in 1933 after a visit to the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Ontario, and first performed Such Sweet Thunder in 1957. Its title was taken from Act IV, Scene 1, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” Ellington described the composition as his “attempt to parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters in miniature – sometimes to the point of caricature.”
“I learned of these pieces when researching the suites of Duke Ellington some years ago,” Brown said. “I have long been inspired by the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and I marvel at their mastery of bringing out the colors and sounds in the fabric of the jazz ensemble. Such Sweet Thunder is particularly demonstrative of this gift, and the message brought forth in this performance will change how people hear music and allow themselves to be moved by art. Duke Ellington is quite simply a master, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to partner with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival to present this music.”
Pedro Silva, NCShakes’ artistic and managing director, is working with Brown to evoke the deeper significance of pieces like “The Telecasters,” which uses trombones and baritone saxophone to signify Macbeth’s Three Witches and Othello’s Iago, or “Madness in Great Ones,” a parallel to Hamlet.
“Over the past five centuries, Shakespeare’s stories, characters and words have inspired countless other works of art,” Silva said. “At its highest form, art awakens fascination with other, new interests, as happened when Duke Ellington first delved into Shakespeare. Fans of literature and theatre will hear Such Sweet Thunder and broaden their appreciation of this form of music. And jazz aficionados will come away with a deeper understanding of what inspires a master like Duke Ellington.”