Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Posts Tagged ‘Duke Ellington School of the Arts

Weaving the Bridge notes

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Actors need lines to read, or scenes to enact; musicians need notes to play, or parameters within which to riff.

Blues For A Royal Flush requires a group of artists, diverse in their expertise, to come together to put notes, words, and details ahead of the actions of actors, musicians, and technicians, so that this theatre piece can step onto its unique platform, and be experienced.

In exploring further, resonant interactions, I have found my way to envelope a stream of Billy Strayhorn into this narrative. The suggestive “Royal Flush” seems now to have further flesh; Duke, Ethel, Ella and Billy.

The work of Strayhorn is seminal to understanding Duke’s genius; a knack for finding talent, and construing it into a mantle of his own. The artists who worked, played, or wrote for Duke, came to know his way of ‘momentum’; making himself the light of the thunderclap.

..this paradigm of collaboration cost everyone involved utter commitment and a meshing of ego beyond a known map of partnership.

But the bargain was never really about obliterating the diversity of the individual voices, but of melding the sound into the distinct texture and tones of Ellington’s mystique.

It is easy to mark this journey through Witness of the exhaust trail. And this is well done in too many other places.

Blues For A Royal Flush is not going to attempt to speak as biography, but as instances of encounter; as ‘moments’, when the sparks struck surface, igniting an outline of personality, perseverance, preservation, performance.. and patience..

In its stride, Blues will include a cohort of its own artists, weaving their individual expertise into a bridge of grace notes to achieve a tapestry of storytelling beyond the page of a script.

The vision of this project has gained the imagination of three, very individual and unique talents: documentarian, Samantha Cheng; cultural illustrator, Nekisha Durrett; and filmmaker, Penny Hollis.

Their distinct styles will be utilized as ‘thresholds’; sequences of narrative image to resonate/’usher in’, scenes of live action.

This is not about playing with media as a ‘toy’, but about finding the right moments to work with its ability to deliver a deeper layer of the ..unspoken context, that pervade our experiences, and enhances 21st century communication – because Blues, though it speaks of the past, is a work of the present, and is a multidisciplinary endeavor.

As a commission by Stanford in Washington, Blues must also speak to a wide dynamic of audience; not only students, faculty, and alumnae, but to the larger community in which Stanford stands established.

In alignment with the ethos of its commission, this project continues to broaden into an educational opportunity; it has engaged the participation of students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, in DC.

Interns, from DESA’s Museum Studies, and Theatre track, have joined to research archive material and images, which will be offered to the project’s visual artists as possible material to work with, or ‘re-imagine’ with. For these interns, working with established artists creates opportunity for an exchange of knowledge and ‘real life application’ that might not otherwise be available.

Additionally the students will create their own image gallery and content exhibition, elaborating on their personal discoveries while investigating lesser known details, and challenges, in the lives of the artists they’ve researched.

This component of exhibition will be part of the overall event, of Blues’ presentation, allowing the interns platform and recognition for their work.

As artist, and Teaching artist, I am very grateful for this project; as the deeper institutional partnerships that are threading, because of it, are crucial to ensuring that Arts Education is not tilted entirely off the future landscape ..


..snippets of the series

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This concept, for a library music series, started with a presentation at the Deanwood Library, here in DC, of a session on “ragtime” –as Eubie Blake called it; he’d use that word all his life, unable to utter the term ‘jazz’ because of its unsavory connotations, which he learned from his days playing the keyboard at a bordello..

That program ran the thread of ragtime from Scott Joplin, through Blake, to the classical weave of George Gershwin, giving opportunity for diverse musical examples of syncopation, jive and passion, with Dana Scott on keyboard, playing Blake’s sassy Baltimore Rag, and then some of Gershwin’s swagger, from his piano Preludes.

The session offered opportunity to present a snippet from a different, earlier “American opera” effort by Gershwin: Blue Monday, where the composer’s grasp reached through Puccini, to pull in the stitching of jazz rhythms and uptown beats, in a short horror story of jealousy and consequence..

The session which followed looked at the blurring line between ‘opera’ and ‘musical theatre’, as American musicals, of the 40’s, 50’s & 60’s steered through the creative prisms of classical composers, were enriched by their language, and drew audiences to Broadway, who then grew accustomed to the kaleidoscopic orchestral extravagances and musical complexities –although, not always easily.

We started with Giacomo Puccini’s stretch at “operetta”, which resulted in his La Rondine, a work he termed as “..a light sentimental opera with touches of comedy –but it’s agreeable, easy to sing, with a little waltz music, and lively and fetching tunes –it’s a sort of reaction against the repulsive music of today.”  The sentiment was stated in 1914…!

Elisabeth Stevens, a dramatic soprano of incredible voice and personal style, offered the ‘hit aria’ from La Rondine; ‘che bel sogno..’

Dana Scott, accompanist; Elisabeth Stevens, soprano; music series, at Deanwood Library, July 2011

Kurt Weill was invoked then; the German composer, after moving to New York, met Ira Gershwin at a party, given by George Gershwin; the Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill collaboration resulted in one of Broadway’s most unique musical extravaganza’s – Lady In The Dark.

The baritone, John Gauthier, gave the Deanwood Library audience the flavor of Weil’s American angst, with the heartbreak of the ‘song’ Lonely House, from Street Scene..

And then we hit the stride of Leonard Bernstein, and his sculpting of the ‘blur’, in the blurred line that seemed to seam Broadway to opera; starting with an excerpt from Wonderful Town, and then moving into the work that showered the composer with the greatest amount of scathing critical sniping: Candide!

During pre-production rehearsals for Candide, Bernstein fought to keep his score together, as other members of the creative team called on him to cut out more and more of the sweeping, or what they considered to be “operatic”, passages of the work; Columbia Records initially declined to record the cast album, saying the score was too depressing and too difficult..

Now this true piece of musical American history has an irreproachable place in the repertory of both musical theaters, and opera houses.

But it was with West Side Story that Bernstein shattered the walls, with a searing musical theater drama that exemplified a mastery of orchestration, and a melodic musical language that easily stood on planks of ‘Broadway flair’, and ‘operatic pathos’..

We had students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts offer an example from this work, with the Anita/Maria duet, A boy like that; Julia Braxton, sang Maria, and India Reynolds, sang Anita..

Julia Braxton, as Maria; India Reynolds, as Anita; music series, at Deanwood Library, July 2011

Their presentation so completely drew in the Deanwood audience, of day camp kids and community residents, that its heartrending conclusion was met with a full ovation!

It is a wonderful feeling, to create platform for professionals and students, and find partnerships that bring musical offerings of diversion and complexity to community audiences, allowing these singers to example a vocation not generally available for view across the wards of DC..

-..and watch, as their passion is witnessed by an enthusiastic and generous crowd, absolutely engaged, and lifted, through presentation of these abilities..