Sunday, March 13, 2016

Duke Ellington's "New World a-Comin'" is an Optimistic and Upbeat Highlight of Brown University Orchestra's "Manhattan Intermezzo" CD on Naxos

Manhattan Intermezzo: American and British Works for Piano and Orchestra by Neil Sedaka, Keith Emerson, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin
Jeffrey Biegel, Piano
Brown University Orchestra
Paul Phillips
Naxos 8.573490 (2016)

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
is featured at
(Copyright Archive Photos)

The Brown University Orchestra is described in these words by the liner notes: "Led by music director Paul Phillips since 1989, the orchestra's membership consists of about a hundred student musicians from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.  One of America's finest collegiate orchestras, the BUO has given concerts in Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall, toured China and Ireland, and performed a wide repertoire that has earned the orchestra seven ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music."

The liner notes gives this overview of the CD: "This is a recording of rediscovery.  As the title indicates, all four works on this recording share a connection with New York City.  The works by Neil Sedaka and Keith Emerson have each been recorded only once before, with the composer at the keyboard.  This is the second recording of Duke Ellington's New World a-Comin' as arranged and recorded by Maurice Peress with pianist Sir Roland Hanna and the American Composers Orchestra in 1988."  

Although best known for composing, leading and performing about 2,000 "big band" jazz pieces, Ellington also composed orchestral, chamber and solo piano works in the classical genre.  His classical music has gradually gained new listeners in recent years due to recordings which are the focus of his page at

The liner notes continue: "Rhapsody in Blue, which has been recorded countless times, is reinterpreted on this recording by Jeffrey Biegel in a way that brings a strikingly new perspective to a familiar masterpiece."

Track 1 is devoted to the title work, Neil Sedaka's 2008 composition Manhattan Intermezzo (18:10).  The piece was orchestrated by Lee Holdridge.

Keith Emerson's Piano Concerto No. 1 (19:51) is a 1976 work which was co-orchestrated by John Mayer.  It occupies Tracks 2, 3 and 4.

Duke Ellington's 1943 composition New World a-Comin' (13:34) is found on Track 5.  The liner notes by Paul Phillips explain the origins of the music: "In 1943 the African-American journalist Vincent Lushington 'Roi'Ottley (1906-1960) published New World a-Coming: Inside Black America, the first of his six books, in which he envisioned improved conditions for blacks in postwar America: '...a new world is a-coming with the sweep and fury of the Resurrection.'  In his 1973 autobiography Music Is My Mistress, Edward Kennedy 'Duke' Ellington (born 29 April 1899, Washington, D.C.; died 24 May 1974, New York) explains that he composed New World a-Comin' in 1943 during his band's four-week engagement in New York City 'at the Capitol on Fifty-first and Broadway with Lena Horne as co-star ... The title was suggested by Roi Ottley's best-selling book of the same name ... It was premiered at Carnegie Hall on 11th December 1943 ... I visualized this new world as a place in the distant future, where there would be no war, no greed, no categorization, no non-believers, where love was unconditional, and no pronoun was good enough for God.  Later, the work was orchestrated for performance by the symphony, and I always remember that even Don Shirley, a pianist with prodigious technique, had trouble with a ragtime 'lick' for the left hand."  

"In spring 1983, Duke Ellington's son Mercer asked Maurice Peress to reconstruct the original version for piano solo and jazz band."  "...Peress worked entirely from a recording of the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, producing an edition that was performed  in the summer of 1983 at the Kool Jazz Festival. Subsequently, Peress expanded the arrangement for full symphony orchestra, precisely following the jazz band arrangement and including his written-out version of Ellington's solo piano part as played at the premiere."           

Our focus here is on Duke Ellington, who is featured at as a composer of both jazz and classical music, but we have enjoyed the addition of the entire recording to our music collection. We wish to pay tribute to the late Keith Emerson, composer of the 1976 Piano Concerto No. 1, who passed away on March 10, 2016.  

The 1943 origin of New World a-Comin' is evident in the composition, yet the sound of the music is surprisingly contemporary as well, perhaps because of its relatively recent arrangement and orchestration by Maurice Peress.  

The four works on the program are well matched, and the orchestra members, pianist Jeffrey Biegel and conductor Paul Phillips have produced an impressive recording which is consistent with the reputation of the Brown University Orchestra as a leading ensemble among American college orchestras.

Comment by email:
Thanks Bill. Such a shame about Keith Emerson! We had just been working with him for this recording. [Kelly Voigt] 

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