A magical, memorable musical Marsalis Juneteenth

Caramoor opens on Juneteenth with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

What is a holiday if not the meaning we ascribe to it beyond beaches and barbecues, retail and relaxation?

The Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah marked the first official Juneteenth — and the opening of its acclaimed international summer music festival — with a concert of works by a composer, Duke Ellington, who understood emotionally and musically that we are one race, the human one.

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s gala appearance was a year in the making. The orchestra, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, was supposed to celebrate Caramoor’s 75th anniversary last year when Covid intervened. Maybe, however, it was always meant for Juneteenth, which commemorates the actual end of slavery in America. Certainly, the moment seemed to be destined, with Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi giving it a kind of gravitas and imprimatur. She received a long, loud standing ovation from the 300 attendees in Caramoor’s tented, Moorish-style Venetian Theater, who included former congresswoman Nita Lowey. (And if you think it was disorienting to be in a roomful of unmasked, socially connected people, try visiting the theater’s ladies room, with women once again touching up makeup and engaging in intimate conversations as if it were 2019.)

Amid a garden-themed setting — Ned Kelly & Co. did the refreshing blue-and-white décor; Adam Neumann the floral butterfly program; Peter F. Petrino, the jeweled lighting and delightful butterfly projections; and Great Performances the delicious three-course meal of Burrata and heirloom tomato salad, beef tenderloin with vegetables and S’more-ish Baked Alaska, washed down by various wines and Tequila Sunrises — it soon became clear just how appropriate Ellington’s music was for a gala that fell on Juneteenth. From gin-soaked, Jazz Age wails to 1960s atonality to Muslim melismas, Ellington (1899-1974) embraced an array of music that transformed riffs and solos into virtuosic coloratura and filigree. The 15-member band took turns in the pyrotechnical spotlight, supporting one another, with Marsalis a first among equals — introducing each number but from the trumpet section of the bandstand. And though Mother Nature’s stormy accompaniment, which calmed by concert’s end, could not be denied, the decades rolled back as the band surveyed the composer’s 50-year career.

When Marsalis announced the end of the concert, an audience member yelled out “nah,” but Marsalis observed that “all things must end so we can do them again.”

Here’s hoping that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra plays it again and again at Caramoor.

For more, visit caramoor.org.

Georgette Gouveia

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