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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The URI Symphony and Big Band team up to give concert-goers a rare treat with dueling versions of “The Nutcracker” on Saturday, Dec. 4.

Dueling ‘Nutcrackers’: Symphony Orchestra, Big Band swing in the holidays with Tchaikovsky, the Duke and Billy

By Tony LaRoche

Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” is as Christmassy as candy canes, decked halls and snowy eves. The fairy tale ballet and its iconic soundtrack have long been holiday staples.

But the University of Rhode Island’s Symphony Orchestra and Big Band are teaming up to give concert-goers a rare treat with dueling versions of “The Nutcracker” on Saturday, Dec. 4, in the Concert Hall of the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, on the Kingston Campus. The Symphony Orchestra will open the show with four selections from Tchaikovsky’s 1892 masterpiece and the Big Band will then jazz things up with five songs from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1960 jazz treatment of the suite.

“We really want this to be a different type of holiday concert,” said Emmett Goods, director of the Big Band. “It would be great to just play ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ and tell everyone to sing along. But this is an opportunity to present two masterworks that are definitely connected to the season and are extremely challenging for our students.”

“This is very rarely done,” added Ann Danis, director of the Symphony Orchestra. “The chance to hear a full orchestra and then a jazz band doing the same music should be mind-bending.”

While concert-goers can probably hum along with entire movements of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker,” the Ellington reimagining is somewhat less known outside jazz enthusiasts. But in the last several decades, the jazz score, first published in 2010, has become more popular as a holiday performance.

Goods first heard it in the late 1980s or early 1990s. “I remember hearing it in middle school when I was still kind of new to being a musician and just being blown away,” he said. “I knew ‘The Nutcracker.’ My school had taken us to downtown Pittsburgh to see the ballet. But to hear it as jazz was amazing.”

Ellington, a pianist, composer and leader of one of the most influential big bands of the 1930s and ‘40s, came to rework Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” in 1960 after seeing his band’s prominence wane and then rebound in the 1950s. While a creator of dozens of jazz hits, he was also a writer in line with classical composers.

“People came to Ellington with this expectation of this is high art,” said Goods. “He was thinking like all the great composers that came out of the Western tradition, but he’s using this African-based music, this Americanized music called jazz.  Then when he gets to ‘The Nutcracker Suite,’ it’s the perfect combination. It’s not just about him taking the best of jazz and saying it’s a suite. It’s about him taking an actual suite and making it jazz. That’s the genius of the moment.”

Scholarly research of Ellington’s collected works in the 1990s showed that Strayhorn, Duke’s long-time collaborator, had written most of the songs on the 1960 album, Goods said. The original album cover, a picture of which is included in the concert program, includes an acknowledgment of Strayhorn’s contributions, with his name up top between those of Ellington and Tchaikovsky.

“That’s probably one of the only times that Billy gets credit and it was important to Duke so much that he had the record company put up the three names,” said Goods, who will provide a history and significance of “The Nutcracker” in between the two performances.

On Saturday, the orchestra will perform some of the most popular songs from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” – “March,” “Dance of the Reed Pipes,” “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and “Trepak.” The Big Band will perform the corresponding jazz versions – “Toot Toot Tootie Toot,” “Peanut Brittle Brigade,” “Sugar Rum Cherry” and “Volga Vouty” (along with the iconic “Overture”).

“You’re going to feel the difference because you’ll hear the orchestra and they will have played them exactly like you expect,” Goods said. “Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn took that material and kept the melody the same and then put it into jazz context. The thing that really makes the jazz version work is that you can sing the melodies. It fits perfectly. That’s the genius of Billy Strayhorn.”

In performing Tchaikovsky, the 52-piece orchestra will include 16 musicians from the Warwick Symphony Orchestra, including its music director, Catherine Gagnon, a regular member of the URI symphony. While “The Nutcracker” is a ubiquitous holiday classic, it doesn’t mean it’s an easy lift for the orchestra, Danis said.

“The students have heard it but have not played it before so it’s a big chunk of music to learn,” she said. “Tchaikovsky is never easy for an orchestra.”

To re-create the Ellington and Strayhorn score, a few of the 18 Big Band musicians have had to pick up a new instrument – such as clarinet, piccolo, finger cymbals, and tambourine – a lesson in what it takes to be a versatile, working musician.

But also, Goods said, a part of the lesson for his musicians is getting back to the basics after the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That means learning the music of Count Basie, which was the focus of the Big Band’s fall concert, and Ellington – “two of the most important Black big bands in the history of jazz,” he said.

“The ABCs of how to play big band jazz is, can you play Count Basie and can you play Duke Ellington?” Goods said. “If you can play those two styles, you can basically play anything.”

Saturday’s concert in the Concert Hall starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12 for general admission; $7 for students, seniors (60 and over), and free for children under 12. To purchase tickets and see the University’s COVID-19 guidelines, please go to the event site.

If you can’t make it to the holiday show in person, you can still catch it for a limited time on YouTube.

URI Symphony Orchestra personnel: Sarah O’Brien and Molly Vallee, flute; Lindsey Moran and Tyler Vanable, oboe; Autumn Casey, Cailin Fairbrother and Jayden Weichtmann, clarinet; Anthony Andriole and Catherine Gagnon, French horn; Emily Redmond and Joseph Riley, trumpet; David Canavan and Ben Marcotte, trombone; Daniel Mach-Holt, tuba; Eric Leonard, tympani; Andrew Dyson, percussion; Gia Antolini (concertmaster), Madison Cahoon, Margaret Dein Bradley, Alan Renfrew and Skye Min, violin 1; Jessenia Grijalva (principal), Abby Hang, Elizabeth McNab, Judy Keller and Tyler Chin, violin 2; Norman Winn (principal), Emilia Delemontex, Julia Canuel and Cieria Westbrook, viola; Ryan Chauvette (principal), Elizabeth Rogers and Jose Amador, cello; Wyatt Crosby (principal) and Louis Kogut, bass.

Guest musicians from the Warwick Symphony Orchestra: Patricia Moody, flute; Linda Carpenter, clarinet; Gerry Heroux, French horn; Kacie St. Sauveur, trumpet; James Himmelman, trombone; Nika Webster, Paul Liu and Alexander Carroll, violin 1; Helen Ianni, Liam DeRosa and Vittoria Monte, violin 2; Elizabeth Morrison and Dana Borgia, viola; Emily Johnson and Nina Perry, cello.

URI Big Band personnel: Fernando Marzan, Andrew Liguori, Jude LaRoche, Joshua Raposo, Nick Medlen and Cedric Mayfield (guest artist), saxophones; Emily Redmond, Dante Lopes, Joseph Riley and Kylan Harding, trumpets; Daniel Mach-Holt, Ben Marcotte, Ryan Sullivan and David Canavan, trombones; Aiden Rogler, guitar; Wyatt Crosby, bass; Andrew Dyson, drums Mason Tucker, piano – with Tara Gozaydin on vocals on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”