Representing Where You’re From: National Symphony Orchestra and Chuck Brown on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, September 4, 2011

The National Symphony Orchestra is, without a doubt, the finest orchestra in Washington, D.C., but its very name points to ambitions larger than, and perhaps distant from, the citizens of the District, Maryland, and Virginia. In the past, the NSO has even wandered to other states to bring them classical music, as though the job had been completely done in D.C. But recently Anne Midgette reported that the NSO has turned its focus for 2012 to Columbia Heights rather than some far-afield land, and for its traditional Labor Day concert this year the NSO brought to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol a feast of music by D.C. legends: John Philip Sousa, Duke Ellington, and Chuck Brown.

Chuck Brown is D.C., period. From

One of those musicians is not like the others, in that he recently celebrated his 75th birthday. I speak, of course, of the Godfather of Go-Go, the man who first fused Latin percussion to a hard funk beat and had the genius and stamina to ensure that the beat never stops. Chuck draws a crowd wherever he goes in the DMV, which resulted in an interesting mix on Sunday night of Chuck Brown fans, largely black, and picnic-on-the-lawn-on-a-nice-evening-with-some-music-after patrons, largely white. (Hardcore classical music fans should know not to look for sustenance in nonticketed concerts held outdoors and conducted by the NSO’s principal pops conductor, Steven Reineke.)

It is a truth universally acknowledged among DMV cognoscenti that if you are not a go-go band, and you are on the same bill as a go-go band, you had better play first, because if the go-go band plays first the entire audience will leave when the band does. Reineke and the NSO thus opened with their Sousa and Ellington. Nonetheless, the cries of “Wind me up, Chuck!” started long before the Sousa set was finished. Also, during the Ellington set the smell of marijuana wafted faintly but distinctly through the air, a first for me at an NSO concert. (This was after the people behind me had an extensive discussion about whether any of their number planned to smoke during the concert, although the smell was not coming from them.) So the NSO got itself in front of a new audience on Sunday, is what I’m saying.

Within the limits of outdoor symphonic concerts — the subtleties of tone that distinguish truly fine symphonic playing rarely make it though huge speaker banks — the NSO acquitted itself pretty well. Reineke made a dandy MC, with a voice deep and resonant like Don LaFontaine and an interesting anecdote for everything he played. He and the orchestra let the rhythm drag in a polonaise written to keep receiving lines moving at the White House, but made up for it with a blistering “Circus Galop” that earned a “Niiiice!” from the Chuck fans behind me and a thoroughly rousing “Stars and Stripes Forever.” Plus it was hard not to choke up a little when the NSO played Sousa’s symphonic arrangement of the national anthem, the audience turned around and gazing at the American flag flying proud in front of the Capitol, lit up brilliant white against the dark sky.

Mercedes Ellington, the Duke’s granddaughter and an accomplished dancer and choreographer herself, joined the NSO to provide a little Ellingtoniana as the orchestra essayed some of his most famous tunes. These were some pretty engaging arrangements — Ellington’s stuff, detailed and harmonically adventurous, lends itself to orchestral amplification —  and some of the NSO players showed off not-inconsiderable chops therein, earning a couple more “Niiiice!”s in the process. Mercedes’ anecdotes could have done with a little editing, but her warm presence helped continue the genial mood of the evening.

And then there was Chuck. Or, specifically, first there was an orchestral arrangement by Tim Berens of three of Chuck’s most famous tunes: “2001 (That’ll Work)” (itself an arrangement of “Dawn” from Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra,” and thus a natural for orchestral readaptation), “Harlem Nocturne,” and the first go-go classic, “Bustin’ Loose.” (This video provides a taste of what happened Sunday.) I am proud of the NSO for its attempt to actually play a go-go pocket rhythm, but it did not quite work; the percussion described it accurately, but did not crank it like it should be cranked. Also, Chuck’s voice, low, rich, and layered, is an instrument in and of itself, and brass can’t fill that hole.

Still, the crowd had arisen the moment the NSO essayed the pocket beat, and their anticipation had been thoroughly whetted by the time Chuck joined the NSO for an arrangement of “Run Joe” by Sam Shoup. This was pretty fun, as the NSO’s massive forces bolstered the call-and-response and, well, Chuck was singing.

That was it for the NSO on Sunday, as after a short break Chuck’s band took over for an hourlong set that I thoroughly enjoyed but which is beyond the scope of this blog. (Except to note that Doug E. Fresh absolutely killed it as a special guest.) Still, I was pleased to see on Chuck’s Facebook page the next day the following comment:

Happy Birthday, Chuck! Loved the concert and loved the symphony orchestra intro. You all need to do an album together. Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers horn section & percussive Go-Go meets the string section of the NSO. Do it, Mon! lol!

Sunday’s audience probably is not going to buy tickets for Bruckner’s 6th or whatever, but goodwill in the place where you play is valuable goodwill indeed, and I hope the NSO will cultivate more of it.

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