LENOX -- A celebration of melody and a tribute to famed jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald are the centerpieces of Sunday afternoon's Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra concert -- the finale of a busy Tanglewood season that saw a record number of non-classical events.
The celebration of Fitzgerald's contributions to the Great American Songbook features Patti Austin, 63, the r&b, jazz and pop singer whose 2002 album, "For Ella," will provide the set list for her appearance with the orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins.
In a late-night interview from Los Angeles, where he was working as principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Wilkins extolled Austin's command of the Fitzgerald repertoire. "Patti and I have worked together a bunch of times," he said, "and we wanted to bring back these wonderful, beautiful tunes."
"It was her idea to do the tribute to Ella, the ‘Queen of Jazz' and ‘First Lady of Song,' and my idea to bring it to Tanglewood," he explained. "In Patti, we have an incredible living artist performing Fitzgerald's music. She was a trailblazer and everyone who came afterwards wanted to learn from her and emulate her."
Austin and her band will be backed by the Esplanade Orchestra, made up of freelance players -- unlike the Boston Pops Orchestra, which is primarily musicians from the Boston Symphony. Her performance will be laced with anecdotes about Fitzgerald's 59-year career, which included sales of some 70 albums (more than 40 million sold), 13 Grammy Awards and honors such as the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Wilkins, 56, holds position as the BSO''s Family and Youth Concert Conductor and also is music director of the Omaha Symphony, where he lives with his wife Sheri-Lee and their twin 21-year old daughters, both musicians.
Recalling his Tanglewood debut last summer with the Pops, Wilkins said he was mesmerized by performing in the same space inhabited by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland many years ago -- "that stood out to me, it was the musical history, standing on the same ground, that made it so special."
Wilkins, a graduate of the New England Conservatory with a master's degree in orchestral conducting, is the first African-American to hold a podium position with the BSO's in the organization's 133-year history. He has appeared with the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras, the Atlanta Symphony and a long list of major regional orchestras.
Describing his mission of connecting with younger audiences in Boston and elsewhere, Wilkins emphasized that "I try never to be a barrier, never to take myself more seriously than my art. I'm not worried about our music's ability to do its job. It's how we deliver it."
Citing the "intrinsic values" of classics -- whether Mozart, Miles Davis, the Beatles or James Taylor -- Wilkins voiced confidence that "this music will survive on its own, we don't have to shout about it from the rooftops. It was here before we got here, and it'll be here long after we're gone. When I came to that realization, my reaction was to thank God for that."
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