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The USC Symphony Orchestra presents music by three American masters

Americana: The Music of Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington

As American as apple pie, Maestro Portnoy and the USC Symphony Orchestra offer a delightful slice of American classics, bringing you the music of Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. Best-loved music of America’s great composers takes place Tuesday, October 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Koger Center for the Arts. Maestro Portnoy gives a pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m. in the Koger's large rehearsal room.

One of the most celebrated figures in the history of big-band jazz, Duke Ellington is renowned both as a composer and as a performer. The concert presents a medley of Ellington’s greatest music from his most creative years with hits like Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Do Nothin’ ‘Til You Hear From Me,  Sophisticated Lady, and It Don’t Mean A Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing. Also on the concert from the Duke is Harlem. Composed in 1950 it depicts the black experience, celebrating in particular, Ellington’s adopted home. The first performance of Harlem by the Duke’s jazz band took place at an NAACP benefit concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1951. Ellington described the piece in his autobiography as “a strolling tour of Harlem on a Sunday morning, from 110th Street up Seventh Avenue, heading north through the Spanish and West Indian neighborhood toward the 125th Street business area. Everybody is nicely dressed and on their way to or from church. Everybody is in a friendly mood – even a real hip chick standing under a street lamp….” For Harlem, Ellington wrote prominent wind and brass solos, requiring great virtuosity from each. The concluding section of wild but elegant abandon suggests that the day’s tour has ended up in the Harlem nightclubs.

The musical score of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story is a powerful combination of energy, vibrant Latin American rhythms, jazz elements and memorable melodies. Symphonic Dances was premiered in 1961 with Lukas Foss conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, in a pension fund gala concert. Bernstein had revisited his West Side Story score, composed in 1957, extracting nine sections and reordering them in a new, uninterrupted sequence for Symphonic Dances. Two of the most popular songs of the musical were included, Somewhere and Maria.

George Gershwin and friends took a holiday in Havana in 1932 that made an impact on the composer’s work. Gershwin called the trip, “two hysterical weeks in Cuba where no sleep was had.” Upon his return, he enthusiastically set out to compose work based on the music he heard playing in clubs and by roving street bands. Cuban Overture is a symphonic overture that embodies the essence of the Cuban dance with infectious rhythms. Gershwin was particularly taken with Cuban percussion instruments and brought back four of them featured in full force – claves, bongo, guiro and maracas – placing them right in front of the conductor’s stand. First titled Rumba, it premiered in 1932 at the first all-Gershwin concert at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium for a cheering crowd of 18,000 people, with a reported 5,000 turned away. “It was,” Gershwin later said, “the most exciting night I have ever had.”

Purchase Tickets

Single concert tickets are $30 general public; $25 senior citizens, USC faculty and staff; $8 students. Concert tickets are available from Capitol Tickets: 803-251-2222 or Koger Box Office, corner of Greene and Park Streets (M-F 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) or online at

About the USC Symphony Orchestra

The University of South Carolina’s premier orchestra ensemble, led by acclaimed music director Donald Portnoy, receives accolades for its fine performances. World-renowned guest artists join the ensemble throughout the year to bring you a stirring seven-concert season with music by the most dynamic composers. See the season.

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