Music: Let the song of praise be sung


A CAPACITY audience rose spontaneously to its feet at the Barbican Theatre on Thursday night after Jessye Norman lavished her full repertory of vocal skills on some of Duke Ellington's sacred music. Ellington was a deeply religious man, and the three sacred concerts that he gave towards the end of his career were among the most significant barrier-crossing musical events of the post-war period. The songs have a pungent harmonic identity that's instantly recognisable, with some highly original ideas.

Thursday's concert took 20 or so items and wove them into a seamless tapestry. It was a slick show, colourfully staged and tastefully arranged, opening with "Praise God", then following on with "In the Beginning", where Ellington conjures the emptiness of time's beginning with some telling and often humorous allusions. "No mountains, no valleys," sang Norman, "no Cadillacs, no aspirin, no headaches." She cut a regal profile, draped in blue, always graceful and with a studied dignity that is the special property of only the most distinctive divas. She sat in the wings when the band took centre stage, and joined in with the excellent London Community Gospel Choir when she wasn't singing solo.

Mark Markham was a poetic piano soloist, especially in the ecstatic song "Heaven", which Norman encored with even more sensitivity than she had brought to her performance in the main programme. Some of the arrangements leant a mellow tint to Ellington's raw-edged originals by employing the talents of the Duke Quartet, a nice idea that worked very well in "The Lord's Prayer".

Perhaps the most striking sequence arrived at that point where Ellington has his singers declaim the book-titles of the Old Testament - always stressing the rhythmic properties of the individual names - then, after a "trio" section of "Come Sunday" (from Black, Brown and Beige), switches to the New Testament.

Music director Maurice Peress kept the performance admirably tight and when Norman was handed the statutory bouquet, she graciously passed flowers to individual members of the Guy Barker Band - all of whom more than earned the compliment. Choreographer and dancer Margie Gillis took Ellington's cue for three imaginative ballet sequences.

And criticisms? Maybe "Come Sunday" was a little too manicured and "Praise God" sounded more like music theatre than a spontaneous shout for joy. But anyone who suspected that Norman might slide ceremoniously into operatic mode will have been happily surprised. True, the voice isn't quite what it was; and yet it remains a wonderful instrument, velvet in texture, amply voluminous and with an extraordinary range. What struck home most forcibly was the sincerity of Norman's performance, its power and tenderness. There was genuine rapture there - and joy, too. Given half a chance, I'd be more than happy to sit in on tonight's repeat performance.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'