The warm and welcoming Hayti Heritage Center in Durham was the venue. The Durham Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro William Henry Curry and guest artists provided a most entertaining afternoon of music by American composers under the heading of “A Tribute to Duke Ellington and Malcolm X”.

Opening the concert, Curry led the tuned and polished orchestra in Jerry Hermann’s Ellington Medley, which included “Mood Indigo” and a selection of other catchy Ellington tunes. This setting was a little in the elevator style, but in the hands of Curry and DSO it sounded like a Hollywood Bowl concert.

One of the endearing elements of a DSO concert is Curry’s heart-felt and meaningful introductions of selections and artists from the podium. Here we met the soprano phenomenon, Rozlyn Sorrell who has sung to acclaim all across the country in a wide range of settings from film to opera. Her powerful and well-focused voice ranges from a rich and warm contralto to remarkable coloratura sparkle. She gave a stunning performance of Curry’s own arrangement of “Ride on, King Jesus.”

A graduate of University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Jason McKinney has performed at the Kennedy Center, the White House and at a number of opera houses here and in Europe. He sang the deeply moving spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” His outstanding deep voice, which some have compared to William Warfield, carried the powerful message of this song of freedom directly to the heart.

Next, Curry spoke of the civil rights activist, Malcolm X. Acknowledging the controversial nature of his style, Curry pointed out the important heritage of self-valuation Malcolm X brought into focus for African-Americans of his time.

The eclectic artist of the spoken word (public speaker, poet, performance artist, playwright, and more) Dasan Ahanu read a passage from The Autobiography of Malcolm X which relates the message delivered to him in prison by another inmate. It was essentially this: Get education, do whatever you have to do to get out of prison; get out of this cage with iron bars. Ahanu delivered the lines with integrity and passion.

The featured highlight of the concert was the Prison scene from Anthony Davis‘ opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. With an accompaniment of eerie, dissonant chords and xylophone chimes, McKinney sang Malcolm’s impassioned feelings about the oppression he had experienced all his lifetime. It was an awesomely moving rendition. Curry made a recording of this work in 1989, released in 1992 on Gramavision Records (79470). Unfortunately, the record company is now defunct and recordings are hard to come by.

After a reading by Ahanu from Malcom X’s 1964 speech to the Peace Corps Workers urging them to think for themselves and make their own decisions, the first half of the concert closed with the Ellington/Strayhorn piece, “The Happy-Go-Lucky Local” from The Deep South Suite. Here the orchestra sparkled with exceptional work from all sections and first chair soloists. Ellington’s swinging off-beat rhythms were delivered with such precision and big band panache as to persuade the foot to tap and the heart to sing.

The second half of the concert opened with another Ellington tribute piece, this one arranged by Bobby Rickets and titled simply “Duke Ellington!” It featured beautiful trumpet work and a spiffy performance by the orchestra.

Ahanu returned to the stage to read an original poem called “Last Time” and then “Roll dem Bones,” an arrangement from the lyrics of Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin for Porgy and Bess.

The rest of the concert featured excerpts from what Curry contends is the greatest opera ever written by an American composer – George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. McKinney sang Porgy’s heart-rending aria “Oh Bess, Where’s my Bess.” Sorrell once again demonstrated her incredible range of pitch and emotional interpretation with “My Man’s Gone Now.” A glissando covering somewhere around two octaves, repeated at the end, sent chills up my spine.

The grand finale was sensational – R. R. Bennet’s “Selections from Porgy and Bess” included most of the beloved music from the opera – from the hopping “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to the wistfully lovely “Summertime” to the inspirational “I’m on My Way.” The performance, including Sorrell, McKinney and the impressive Durham Symphony Orchestra was undoubtedly inspired by Curry’s knowledge of and affection for this masterpiece.

This is American music that has so much to offer to all of us. We are most fortunate to have Maestro Curry and the Durham Symphony Orchestra in our community.