NICHOLE JIANG – STAFF WRITER
“The Great American Songbook,” consisting of songs that transcend time, was the foundation of jazz music from the 1920s and 1930s. Saturday’s performance is not only a celebration of music and musical legends, but it marks the end of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s 2021 season. In a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, “The First Lady of Song” and iconic American music, the CSO, led by Principal Pops Conductor Stuart Chafetz, will be joined by Capathia Jenkins at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in the Amphitheater.
Jenkins, a Brooklyn-born actress and singer, has performed all over the world with orchestras such as Hong Kong Philharmonic, Seattle Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra. She has also been featured in several Broadway roles including Medda in Newsies and Harriet Jackson in The Civil War. Jenkins proves she can do it all as she can also be heard on film soundtracks like “Nine,” “Chicago” and “Legally Blonde 2.”
Jenkins has performed at Chautauqua twice in the past, and she enjoys coming back each and every time.
“The very first time I was up in Chautauqua, I was so blown away by it. It just feels like a place that’s sort of back in time. It really felt like this nostalgic and really happy place,” Jenkins said. “I think that this sets it apart from other places in the country. And then particularly to perform here, I think that the Amphitheater is so beautiful.”
“It’s such a lovely venue, and then the audience is just so appreciative, warm and kind. So for me, it’s like standing onstage and just having a big ol’ warm hug.”
Jenkins is also excited to be back performing live with the CSO and Chafetz.
“Stuart’s one of my favorite people in the world,” Jenkins said. “He’s one of my favorite conductors and it’s just an honor to share the stage with (the CSO).”
The excitement runs both ways — the CSO can’t wait to create music with Jenkins again.
“I’ve been waiting for Capathia Jenkins to come back since she was here a few years ago. She just tore the roof off of the place. She impressed every one of us,” said Beth Robinson, harpist. “She’s a phenomenal musician, and playing with Stu is also such a high for us because he’s at the top of his game with pops concerts. To have this concert end this season is very exciting for us.”
Saturday’s concert will be memorable, Chafetz said, not just because of the music being performed but because of the ability Jenkins has to make a lasting impression on whatever stage she sets foot on.
“I’m actually the most excited about this concert because she’s just so good at this. She’s good at everything, but this in particular, it’s right in her wheelhouse,” Chafetz said. “She’s also a beautiful person inside and out. She can sing. She can blow the roof off the place because she’s just a powerhouse, and that’s the cool thing that she just brings everybody in with her abilities. She’s that kind of a performer, and she sings with so much passion, emotion and musicality and quite frankly, I get chills whenever I work with her, because she’s so gifted. And we just have a really wonderful connection.”
The CSO performing live with Jenkins is a perfect merging of talent where each side elevates the other in a way that will captivate the audience.
“A lot of my career was on Broadway, so that’s a different feeling when you have an orchestra that’s typically in the pit. But the thing about a symphony is that you’re on stage with them, and it’s typically 60, 70, 80 pieces,” Jenkins said. “And at the heart of who I am is this little Black girl from Brooklyn, New York, and so I get on stage and I’m standing there, in my pretty dress, and this orchestra begins my intro, and it’s just like, oh my god, I get to do this. It really is exciting and thrilling and it’s like nothing else. The live orchestra is just wonderful and glorious.”
The performance will begin with “The Star Spangled Banner” and will then jump right into familiar tunes from composers like George Gershwin that make up The Great American Songbook, as well as songs honoring jazz and Ella Fitzgerald.
“I always look forward to playing Gershwin’s music. Some of his songs and melodies are so beautifully written,” said Lars Kirvan, cellist. “He’s a jazzy composer, but he was also very melodic in his writing, with very catchy tunes that people can easily relate to and sing along to. It’s familiar, just as Beethoven is to the classical repertoire.”
Iconic songs on the program include “Goody Goody,” “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and “Strike Up The Band.”
“I personally love ‘Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.’ That is absolutely the most gorgeous thing that I have conducted with Capathia,” Chafetz said. “I love it all, but that one in particular is extremely beautiful, slow and sensuous. It’s pure velvet.”
Jenkins is also looking forward to not just performing these legendary songs and honoring Fitzgerald, but putting pieces of herself in as well.
“It’s about Ella, but it’s also about The Great American Songbook. They don’t write songs like this anymore, and when you get a person like Ella Fitzgerald singing that music, she would sing the ink off the page, as I like to say. Then she would take it and make it her own so she made a little flourish, or she might scat a little bit,” Jenkins said. “Often people say to me, ‘Oh, are you trying to imitate her?’ and that is certainly not what I’m trying to do — but I think we are kindred spirits. I do have a pure joy for this music.”
Jenkins has always looked up to this music and the musicians of this time and can’t wait to bring the audience back to this era of jazz and catchy tunes.
“You hear this music, and people in the audience are thrust back to this time when they were younger, or when they used to go out dancing. So, it really is this magical time capsule — and it’s the reason why these songs have stood the test of time,” Jenkins said. “Some of the arrangements that we will do are original Ella Fitzgerald arrangements, so it’s really an honor and a pleasure. I have such a reverence for Ella and for The Great American Songbook. Jazz music and this whole era means the world to me. I get to stand on their shoulders, and it’s really amazing.”
Saturday’s music has a special meaning for Chautauqua, as well.
“Gershwin composed his piano concerto in F in one of those practice shacks. So there’s that connection with Gershwin (and) Chautauqua,” Chafetz said. “ The American Songbook as we know it is from that time where a melody was everything. It represented music in a very pure way. There were no synthesizers, there were no sound effects, everything that was made came from an instrument, and that’s a huge thing for me. I think that we’re going back to our roots and going back to the great American song, and the joy that Capathia brings to it is infectious.”
The orchestra will be joined by a guest pianist and saxophones, completing the whole experience and transforming the Amp into a jazz club.
“We’re going to have a whole rhythm section with piano, bass, guitar and drums, so we’re going to be swinging,” Chafetz said. “It’s going to add a completely different color to the ensemble, and really get that color that all these arrangements were so famous for.”
Robinson said there will be a recognizable tune on the program for everyone.
“The music is familiar and people are going to be tapping their toes. If everyone isn’t dancing out of the Amp at the end, then we’ve not done something right,” Robinson said. “I just think this is going to be one of the most memorable concerts of the season.”
The concert is bittersweet for the CSO, as it is their last of the condensed season.
“It’s sentimental when this orchestra gets together, and when we leave, because we’re like a family,” Robinson said. “It’s like saying goodbye to relatives. But we never really say goodbye; we say, ‘See you next year.’ It’s the end in a way, but it’s also exciting because it’s going to be a great concert.”
Chafetz said the CSO is both grateful and proud for what they accomplished in a season full of obstacles.
“I feel thrilled as really my first official season as principal pops conductor here. I felt like we’ve had some pretty amazing performances with two incredible films, and some beautiful opera,” Chaftez said. “To end with this it feels like a true triumph for us, especially after what we’ve been through, and the symphony in general having the opportunity with Rossen (Milanov) to make such beautiful music, with all that’s been going on in the world. It certainly gives us hope for the future. This was a really amazing season, and I feel so happy to have been a part of it.”