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Duke Ellington revisited

Legacy of famed bandleader will be woven, along with work of Daniel Schnyder, another 'hybrid composer,' through Pacific Symphony's American Composers Festival.

May 13, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • Daniel Schnyder, the Pacific Symphony's composer-in-residence, will perform Thursday through Sunday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Daniel Schnyder, the Pacific Symphony's composer-in-residence,… (Anja Tanner )

Daniel Schnyder spends nearly every day walking in Duke Ellington's footsteps. Literally.

The Pacific Symphony's composer-in-residence, who will perform Thursday through Sunday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, recently moved his family to Harlem to be close to Manhattan's cultural scene. He didn't have the funds for a spot downtown, but as it turned out, his affordable digs brought him face-to-face with musical history.

One day, shortly after moving in, Schnyder was walking down the street and noticed a plaque outside a brownstone noting that Ellington, the prolific composer and bandleader, had once lived there. As one who has made a similar career of meshing jazz with other genres, Schnyder felt a rush of affinity.

"He probably had a nice apartment there," the saxophonist said by phone last week. "I don't know which number."

Schnyder, born in 1961 in Switzerland, was 13 when Ellington passed away and never met the "Mood Indigo" author. Still, their paths have intertwined more than once. Dave Taylor, the trombonist in his combo, recorded with Ellington decades ago. And this week at Segerstrom, both Schnyder and Taylor will share the bill with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the symphony's American Composers Festival.

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'An enormous literature'

The festival, now in its 13th year, focuses on a different theme each time: movie music, the West, Depression-era composers. This time, the symphony zeroed in on two artists who are defined by, well, maybe their lack of definition.

The press kit for this year's festival describes Ellington and Schnyder as "hybrid composers...neither of whom fit neatly into a single musical category."

Peppered throughout are more intentionally vague terms: "eclectic borrowers," "post-classical." So when the first note of the festival sounds Thursday, it will celebrate not only two esteemed composers, but also the changing attitudes of the culture that came to hold them in esteem.

"My feeling is that classical music is a term that must be used today with a lot of care, because it essentially refers to a previous period when classical music was considered the supreme stratum of musical experience," said Joe Horowitz, the symphony's American Composers Festival advisor. "Today, we embrace a much broader and more varied musical landscape."

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