A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
May 7, 2013
09:20 PM
Classically Speaking

Three Snapshots of a Broadway-bound Band

Three Snapshots of a Broadway-bound Band

April 16, 5:10 p.m. Band rehearsal room at Sun Prairie High School
Sun Prairie High School’s top jazz band, Jazz Ensemble I, has just finished playing Duke Ellington’s “Jack the Bear.” The question is asked: “Do you usually play it faster than that? (Collective “yeah!”). Well, you’ve got to find the swing at whatever tempo you’re in—you can’t speed up in the middle. What if that happens in a gig?”

Right…as in, what if that happens on Saturday, May 11, at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis and the members of his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra dissecting your performance against the fourteen other bands from around the country? You see, the questioner was not Steve Sveum, long time director of jazz at Sun Prairie High School. The point was made by Vincent Gardner, a trombone player in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. He’s flown out here with saxophonist Ted Nash, also of JLCO, for a four-hour coaching session. It’s part of the package when you crack the Essentially Ellington lineup.

Here’s some quick context: Wynton Marsalis is the greatest all-around trumpeter, jazz and classical, in history. At twenty-three, he won Grammys for his first two albums, one jazz, one classical. A little over a decade later, Lincoln Center basically created a jazz division for him to run. In 1996, Essentially Ellington was launched as a local, then regional competition, intended to foster high school bands and preserve the music of Duke Ellington. By 1999, the event was open nationally, and Sun Prairie High School Jazz Ensemble I traveled to New York City for the first time. Typically about one hundred high schools submit demo CDs, and fifteen are selected to perform and be critiqued by Marsalis and company.

This is the seventh time SPHS JE I is heading to the big stage in the Big Apple. Three seniors were in the group two years ago, the last time they went. The band doesn’t act or sound nervous playing for Gardner and Nash. They act like they belong. They do.

May 5, Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School Auditorium, 7 p.m.
Jazz Ensemble I plays a “Back to the Big Apple” program with a distinct “home court” advantage: the former high school auditorium is nearly full, and not just with relatives. When they go to EE, only three songs will be played, so the concert is filled out with a very special treat: baritone Kyle Ketelsen. A Sun Prairie native, Ketelsen is also no stranger to the world’s biggest stages, with a thriving opera career that runs from Manhattan (the Metropolitan Opera) to Madrid. He’s back just in time from Spain to help out the kids with this fundraising concert; like flipping a switch he leaves Mozart behind and channels Frank Sinatra in “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” The bulk of the Ellington charts come out in the second half (“Jack the Bear” growls a little more quickly than three weeks ago), and whether it’s the soloists or the whole group, the readings are sharp and fresh. Ketelsen closes with a “New York, New York” that begins: “Start spreadin’ the news…They leave on Thursday…”

May 6, Liliana’s, Fitchburg
This jazz on the patio event is a little bit of everything: the EE charts mixed in with some small combo work. More than a rehearsal, less than a concert, it’s one more chance to work on the chops and have some fun doing it. It takes a little while to gel; after all, they played the night before, had a school day, and oh yeah, some of the students are squeezing in AP exams before the trip. Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local,” with its imitations of train sounds and inimitable rhythms is a great soundtrack for the setting sun. Sveum tells the players to try and rest on the bus ride back to Sun Prairie. It’s probably the one piece of their director’s advice they blithely ignore.

This year we can all go with the SPHS JE I: the link to webcast is here. The schedule of events is:

Friday, May 10
2–3 p.m. One-on-One w/ Wynton Marsalis (SPHS slot)

Saturday, May 11
11 a.m.– 12:15 p.m. JLCO w/ Wynton Marsalis Open Rehearsal
2:30–6:30 p.m. Competition Part I (SPHS JE I scheduled for 2:10 p.m., CDT).

Sunday, May 12
10–11:30 a.m. Competition Part II
1–2:30 p.m. Competition Part III
4 p.m.  Announcement of the three top-placing bands
7:30 p.m. Concert and Awards Ceremony

Photo: SPHS Jazz Ensemble I, courtesy SPBB

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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