By John Arundel
A late day downpour, the partial collapse of a tent, and a last minute no-show by Stevie Wonder did little to dampen spirits at Thursday’s “Performance Series of Legends” benefit concert for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where this year’s legends Sting and Paul Simon sprung into over-compensation mode, rocking the acoustically-precise Strathmore Music Hall in Bethesda.
In what Duke Ellington co-founder Peggy Cooper Cafritz called its most successful fundraiser since 1994, $1.2 million was raised in one night for educational programming for DC’s premier arts and academic high school, which in 1974 opened in Georgetown, training young artists for musical and entertainment careers. Chief benefactor Betty Eugene Casey donated $17 million to he school two years ago, and raised a significant amount for this year’s event, as Ellington celebrates “40 Years of Being the Difference.”
“Duke Ellington continues to successfully educate young people for the 21st century–in and through the arts,” Cafritz said.
Attired in blazer, slim black leggings and light grey cardigan sweater, with a red pocket square to complete an MTV-ready effect, Sting stepped onto stage to roaring applause, launching into some of his best-known hits, including the classics “Englishman in New York.” “Everything She Does is Magic,” “Seven Days,” and “Driven to Tears,” with each of the songs sung to the soaring background vocals of the 60-student strong Duke Ellington Chorus.
Imploring the crowd to “Stand Up!” for the arrival of his musical mentor, Simon sauntered onstage sporting a black fedora and the duo broke into a spirited rendition of “The Boxer” before Sting leaned into a reprise of Simon & Garfunckel’s 1968 classic “America.”
“When we came to America for the first time, me and the band landed in New York, we loaded up our gear into a van, then drove across America, staying in awful little motels and playing to mostly half-empty clubs,” Sting reminisced. “That was a song we heard a lot on the radio back then.”
Simon sang to perfect pitch Sting’s “Fragile,” while Sting returned the favor with a spirited rendition of “Bridge over Troubled Waters” before leaving the stage to Sting and that bug-eyed Duke Ellington Chorus, which joined him for the encore, studio-perfect performances of “Desert Rose” and “Every Breathe You Take.”
Sting was suitably impressed by the efforts of the Ellington students. “What are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked with a chuckle.
The students were too awed to answer.