Music: Let the song of praise be sung

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The Independent Culture
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.