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Louis Armstrong lives through WSO concert

sbirkenmeyer@vagazette.com

Louis Armstrong’s distinct voice and powerful performances made way for a legacy that endures nearly half a century following his passing.

The Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra returns to the Williamsburg Lodge Saturday for another round of "Cabaret and Cocktails,” this time paying homage to the musician’s work with guest artist Byron Stripling, who brings Satchmo’s brand of musical magic back to the stage.

“He grabbed me by my ear and took me on a journey that changed my life forever,” Stripling said. “You can hear something, and the music is so powerful that that music is imbued inside your body. That’s what I get from Louis Armstrong.”

Stripling, a trumpeter who’s performed as a soloist for the Boston Pops Orchestra, worked with conductor John Williams of “Star Wars” fame and currently serves as conductor and artistic director for the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, hails from a family of musicians. When relaxation beckoned, his music professor father would play jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Armstrong.

“I couldn’t get enough of them,” he said.

WSO conductor and music director Janna Hymes met Stripling during her time in graduate school, and his trumpet playing quickly left her awestruck.

“He sounds like Louis Armstrong and he plays like Louis Armstrong,” she said. “He’s probably the closest thing to Louis, if you like that music.”

For both music lovers, it’s easy to see why Armstrong’s music remains so relevant.

“When people think of Louis Armstrong, they think of this really unique voice,” Hymes said. “Even if you don’t know the titles, when you hear the music, you know all of the songs. It’s got this everlasting, just timeless recognition.”

Music of a certain era

Saturday’s concert features hits Armstrong made iconic, such as “What a Wonderful World,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “St. Louis Blues.”

“This is all great music of a certain era,” Hymes said.

Stripling said the ensemble will perform some of Armstrong’s lesser known works as well.

“We just try to find classic songs,” he said. “A concert should have the familiar and unfamiliar, and you try to find that balance.”

Hymes was quick to emphasize that although Stripling pays sincere homage to Armstrong, he stands out in his own right.

“He sounds like him, but he’s also got his own voice,” she said.

The concert also aims to be a more casual affair than most WSO efforts, more in line with something such as their annual Holiday Pops event, where those in attendance can sit back and enjoy the music without having to think too much. Hymes sees it as an opportunity to bring together classic music lovers and those whose horizons might not typically extend that far.

“The thing that’s so great about this is it’s entertainment,” she said. “They’ll learn a little bit. But people are able to come and have a good time.”

In an age where most experience music through the likes of Spotify and YouTube, Stripling said this sort of live experience serves as reminder of the unifying power of the art form.

“You’re actually touching and feeling people. There’s a vibration that happens in the commonality that you share during music,” he said. “If I can give that sense — and certainly Louis Armstrong did — to somebody in an audience, then we’ve made a magical thing happen for people. That’s the power of music.”

Want to go?

“Cabaret and Cocktails” plays the Williamsburg Lodge 8 p.m. Saturday. Tickets range from $45-$85, available at williamsburgsymphony.org or by calling 229-9857.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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