Jazz and Shakespeare Meet in SUCH SWEET THUNDER at North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, 4/27
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by BWW News Desk
This April, the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival will again present the unique concert and theatrical performance Such Sweet Thunder, a jazz suite composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn inspired by works by Shakespeare.
NCShakes partnered with Duke University jazz program leader John Brown to present the program last spring in High Point, Charlotte and Durham. This year's event takes place at the High Point Country Club (800 Country Club Road, High Point) on Saturday, April 27, at 8 p.m.
Ellington and Strayhorn were both already legendary jazz musicians when they composed Such Sweet Thunder in the 1950s. Ellington had become fascinated with the Bard, after visiting England in 1933. The title Such Sweet Thunder is drawn from a line in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream.
"NCShakes is always looking for ways to help new audiences discover how classics of art and literature still have something to show us in the 21st century," said Wil Elder, the festival's president and CEO. "We're thrilled to partner again with the John Brown Band and Duke University to bring this legendary suite of music to North Carolina arts lovers."
Ellington described Such Sweet Thunder as his "attempt to parallel the vignettes of some of the Shakespearean characters in miniature - sometimes to the point of caricature." Each of the 12 compositions in the suite are based on a Shakespearean character, play or sonnet, including Romeo and Juliet, Lady Macbeth, Othello and Puck. Musical motifs mirror what Ellington and Strayhorn saw as the characters' core traits; other pieces mimic the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet.
Such Sweet Thunder is notable for the skill Ellington and Stayhorn demonstrate at understanding Shakespeare's characters. In "Star-Crossed Lovers," Romeo and Juliet's tragic love story is retold as a duet between alto and tenor saxophone, while Lady Macbeth is envisioned as having "a little ragtime in her soul."
Brown's 15-piece big band will perform the suite in its entirety, interspersed by brief performances by NCShakes actors. For instance, a vignette from Hamlet provides an introduction to "Madness in Great Ones," in which a trumpet soloist stands in for the unstable Prince of Denmark.
"Over the past five centuries, Shakespeare's stories, characters and words have inspired countless other works of art," said Pedro Silva, NCShakes artistic and managing director. "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."
For John Brown, a Grammy Award-nominated jazz bassist who tours internationally, Such Sweet Thunder represented a new creative challenge. "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 Ellington and Strayhorn, and I marvel at their mastery of bringing out the colors and sounds in the fabric of the jazz ensemble."
Tickets to Such Sweet Thunder include several courses of plated hors d'oeuvres and an open wine/beer bar, and may be purchased at 336-841-2273. Tickets are $75 each, or $650 for a table of 10. Find more information at www.ncshakes.org.
Brown, a native of Fayetteville, N.C., is a bassist, composer and actor, and is currently the director of the jazz program and associate professor of practice of music at Duke University. He has performed in the United States and abroad with artists including Wynton Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Delfeayo Marsalis, Elvin Jones, Nnenna Freelon, Diahann Carroll, Rosemary Clooney, Nell Carter, Lou Donaldson, Slide Hampton, Nicholas Payton, Frank Foster, Larry Coryell, Cedar Walton, Fred Wesley and Mark Whitfield.
Brown earned a Grammy nomination for his performance and co-writing on Nnenna Freelon's 1996 Concord release, Shaking Free. His extensive experience includes performances at notable venues including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Blue Note, Blues Alley and the Hollywood Bowl, and at major jazz festivals including the Playboy Jazz Festival, the JVC Jazz Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Free Jazz Festival (Brazil) and Jazz e Vienne (France).
The North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, founded in High Point in 1977, is a residential professional theatre company dedicated to producing the world's classics. Designated by the North Carolina General Assembly as the state's official Shakespeare company, NCShakes' mission is to entertain, educate and enrich North Carolina students and citizens with quality professional productions of the world's great plays and with in-school and life-long learning opportunities.
For further information about the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, call 336-841-2273 or visit www.NCShakes.org. For further information about affiliate company Festival Stage of Winston-Salem, call 336-841-2273 or visit www.FestivalStage.org.