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Chicago Symphony Orchestra 

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the Nutcracker Suite at Christmas? What a shocker. Even the inclusion of music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, his inseparable writing partner, wouldn't in itself make these concerts noteworthy--by now, their inventive and irresistible 1960 reworking of the Nutcracker for the Ellington band (credited to "Tchaikovsky/Ellington-Strayhorn" on the recording) has replaced the symphonic suite on some holiday programs, and new productions of the ballet have even used it instead of the original score. The attraction here is that the CSO's program offers audiences the chance to make direct A-B comparisons between the two: the orchestra will start by playing Tchaikovsky's overture, and then a big band--comprising some CSO winds and rhythm players as well as a bunch of jazz ringers--will follow it immediately with the Ellington-Strayhorn version. This alternation will certainly break up the flow of the music, but it has the significant advantage of presenting each theme alongside its variation. After all, the delightful Ellington-Strayhorn title "Peanut Brittle Brigade" hardly makes the piece's lineage clear (Tchaikovsky's original is called simply "March"), and even their arrangement of its instantly recognizable opening fanfare--propelled by a snipping hi-hat backbeat and dressed up in dense, shouting brass chords--can leave a listener wondering why that melody sounds so familiar. As "Toot Toot Tootie Toot" follows "Dance of the Reed Pipes" and Tchaikovsky's "Russian Dance" gives way to the jazzmen's springy "Volga Vouty," the genius of Ellington and Strayhorn reveals itself in a new light: even when adapting the work of a composer like Tchaikovsky, whose melodies equaled their own, they created music as distinct as it is superb. The jazz band for the evening will include pianist Mike Kocour and trumpeters Orbert Davis and Rob Parton, as well as tenor saxists Mark Colby and Jim Gailloreto, the latter of which will cover the generous stretches of solo time apportioned on the 1960 recording to Ellington mainstay Paul Gonsalves. The linchpin of this collaboration is Larry Combs, both the CSO's principal clarinetist and an accomplished jazz improviser--he'll take on the demanding and exposed clarinet parts originally played by another great (though less well-known) Ellingtonian, Jimmy Hamilton. Thursday through Saturday, December 20 through 22, 8 PM, and Sunday, December 23, 3 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114.

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