We had the privilege of working with Maurice Peress, who worked with Ellington for many years and orchestrated much of the music on the program. He is an excellent conductor with excellent ears and a lively musical soul (he told us that he was 77, which I found hard to believe because he has the energy of a much younger man). He can hear everything, and he knows everything in the score; as if the notes, articulations, and dynamic markings are members of his immediate family. His role of conductor is as an advocate of Ellington's music, and, by extension, of all music.
He speaks of Ellington in the present tense, which makes sense because when you play a piece of music it is happening in the present tense. The composer is there because the music is there. He also has the conducting technique to make everything he wants to hear in the music obvious to the musicians playing it. Syncopated rhythms that would be difficult to play in the right places under ordinary circumstances roll off the instrument effortlessly when the conductor really feels the music.
He also seemed to like our orchestra, a group made of faculty from the University of Illlinois (both Jazz and Classical), some students, and some freelance musicians. Peress let us know that he liked working with us. He told us so, and he meant it. He's the kind of person who wears his emotions on the outside, which for a conductor is often fortunate, but sometimes a bit dangerous. He does not have to hide behind scholarship. He could have spent a long time dropping names and trying to impress everyone with who he is and where he's been, but the only person he really talked about was Ellington.
All of our rehearsals ended too soon (and I'm usually tired after a 3-hour rehearsal), and the concert was over far too quickly.