Once the instrumentation had been settled, I had about six weeks to get the entire project written. (This has been a source of some amusement amongst my friends in the theatrical orchestration world, who generally have three weeks or less to score an entire Broadway musical of typically 2500 measures.)

Some of this was simplified by removing interstitial orchestral measures to make the best use of the limited amount of time each scene was allotted.

Yuval wanted to respect Wagner’s original vocal lines by keeping them as intact as possible, and had tailored his excellent translation to scan to the existing notes: this required very little tweaking from me.

The first task was to get the singers learning the new text, so it had to be inserted into existing vocal scores via PDF (in our case we used the Peter’s edition as being a little more pianistically manageable than the Schott’s). I felt it was imperative that those who were new to their roles learn them from the original material in order to anchor their vocal lines, before getting acquainted with my reduced orchestrations.


I then determined the order of work by practicality and what would take the copyist longest to accomplish. The first scene took me only a few hours one afternoon. The Immolation scene was next as it had the largest number of instrumental parts and would take the longest for their extraction (and therefore proofreading). Then the Rheinmaidens/Siegfried scene, so the two percussionists could have as much time as possible with their fairly demanding parts.

IMG_0258 (1)I left the Alberich / Hagen scene for last, as I had next to no knowledge of the accordion – practical or theoretical – and wanted as much time as possible to get a feel for the instrument in order to produce a part that was at least somewhat idiomatic. This situation was made more challenging by the fact that almost no two accordions are alike, and as the players shifted, I kept trying to adjust the part for their extant instrument. Under the circumstances, it was intensely gratifying (and slightly amusing) to have the player who ultimately undertook the gig compliment me on the excellence of the scoring!

As involved as all this may sound, in hindsight my own part on this remarkable project seems trivial, especially considering the months of intense logistical planning and preparation that preceded rehearsals, involving top experts in their field. Just to reiterate the complexity of one of the performance evenings:

  • Across a three hour span, twelve groups of spectators confined to a maximum of eight vehicles per group would proceed through six performing spaces.
  • Each group of spectators in their cars would arrive in the opera’s staff parking lot for a wide screen video prologue, then proceed into the helix parking garage for the other five scenes.
  • Because safety rules mandated that the vehicle windows be up at all times, audio had to be fed via the cars’ radios. (Which was a tragedy: the MOT’s garage possessed stunning acoustics. Even on the roof level, with no over-arching shell, the surrounding buildings provided Christine with an extraordinary reverberatory platform. Residents in the adjacent buildings were frequently observed glued to their windows when she rehearsed, which she always did in full voice.)
  • As all six scenes would be performed simultaneously, each would need its own audio feed via its own radio station. Which required six different radio station frequencies to be licensed for the duration of the production. Each of which had to be independently finessed and managed to achieve an optimal balance between voice and instruments.
  • This, and the logistics of stewarding twelve groups of cars through six scenes with very specific timing, required an army of stage managers, coordinators, and sound supervisors – not to mention stagehands – to make it all run seamlessly and on time.
  • Which included the perfectly timed audio cues for the performers, critical to starting and ending g each piece.

To say nothing of the vigilant safety protocols instituted during them. Prior to arriving in Detroit, we had to take online quizzes regarding the procedures that would be in place, sign numerous assurances to adhere to them, and provide last minute test results. At every rehearsal location temperatures were checked, and spacing demands rigorously observed: no joke when trying to adequately space the instrumentalists for both safety and interaction.

The army of superb technicians who brought off this complex operation still leaves me in awe. To say nothing of the musicians, who met the logistical and conductorless challenges of this demanding music with aplomb. A special shoutout to concertmaster Eliot Hausen who didn’t bat an eye at leading the Immolation Scene from his violin as if it was second nature.

I’m especially indebted to Bill Billingham of Lyric Chicago Opera, who as part of the co-commission was one of several members of their staff sent to assist in the production. Amongst his other myriad talents, Bill proved to be a proofreading wonder, no mean feat given the extreme differences and paring down from Wagner’s original. Also Suzanne Acton, MOT’s chorus director, who was charged with handling a continually shifting roster of instrumentalists, both during preproduction and rehearsals.

I bow to Yuval Sharon, who broached this audacious project to me with the ease of putting on an amateur review in a barn, and who bore the endless onslaught of exigencies, problems, challenges, and setbacks with an unfailingly tireless, enthusiastic and supportive demeanor.


And how to express my admiration for the peerless Christine Goerke. Just to have the opportunity to watch this legendary artist sail repeatedly through the entirety of the Immolation scene, one of the major hurdles of the rep, on the open roof of a parking garage with no acoustic backing with all the effort of buffing her nails. The entire company would watch agog as she repeatedly hurled gleaming top As and Bs into the Michigan skies like fireworks.

It’s a complex production to undertake, and for all the rave reviews and enthusiastic inquiries from other companies, who knows how many other iterations it will see. But it was worth every effort and potential risk, as so perfectly expressed by Yuval himself:

“We cannot just sit in silence and hope for the best. Instead, we can band together, take care of each other’s safety, and make our voices heard, telling a story of a massive RESET. We may not be in a theater, but art can still find a way.”



Yuval had chosen the musical scenes from Götterdämmerung principally for their psychological strength in moving the condensed (and slightly contemporized) narrative. These were:

  1. Act I scene 2: Waltraute’s description to Brünnhilde of the defeated state to which their father, Wotan, lord of the gods, has been reduced.
  2. Act II scene 1: the eerie nocturnal colloquy between the dwarf Alberich and his half human son Hagen, responding in a granite, somnolent monotone to his father’s frenzied exhortations that they must regain the all powerful ring at any cost and wreak vengeance on their foes.
  3. Act III scene 1: the Rheinmaidens’ colloquy with Siegfried, warning him of the curse imbued in the ring he possesses and urging him to save his own life by returning it to them and the Rhine river which will cleanse it, a plea Siegfried blithely disdains.
  4. Act III scene 2: Siegfried’s death hymn to Brünnhilde.
  5. Act III scene 2: an abridged version of the Immolation Scene.

These music scenes were to be interspersed with live narration, and the transition from one level of the garage to another accompanied by soundscapes created from relevant sections of the score by Los Angeles-based composer Lewis Pesacov. Ultimately these live narrations proved too time consuming and were incorporated as part of the inter-scene audio feed.

As the arranger and orchestrator, the project presented me with a few challenges from the outset:

The biggest was ascertaining how many instrumentalists would be at my disposal, what  instruments they would play, and how many to allocate to each scene. Commencement of my work was delayed over the summer as discussions went back and forth between the opera and the local musician’s union about possibly prerecording the tracks for the singers to perform with live, which would have put a total of 22 at my disposal for all four scenes. Word was that the orchestra was leery of performing live, given the continuing uncertainty  about pandemic protocols, not to mention the prospect of playing almost continuously some fairly demanding music 12 times consecutively in a largely outdoor space in a potentially chilly Midwestern autumn.

Ultimately agreement was reached for live instrumentalists to interact with the singers, which turned out to be the happier solution. This left us back at a total complement of 18, which had to be divided in various strengths across the five scenes.

In addition, MOT wanted to highlight their strongest players, a list that changed with almost every conversation, as some of the orchestra had decamped for other career opportunities in states with reduced covid inhibitions.

The original idea was for standard orchestral instruments, with special requests for English horn and tuba. But as Yuval expounded on his vision of an updated, timeless production concept, and explained that the poetic narration provided by Marsha Music would be in contemporary vernacular, it occurred to me that the unusual allure would be enhanced if I used instruments outside of the traditional 19th century sphere.

Yuval and I began by agreeing on an increasing number of players per scene: one for the Waltraute scene, three for the Alberich and Hagen scene, and eight for the Immolation Scene. This left five, which would be challenging to allocate to the two remaining scenes. It then occurred to us to piggyback those scenes, since in the original opera they occur in fairly quick succession (well, quick for Wagner). This would also allow us some breathing space across the performance span.

Ultimately my instrumental decisions were a mixture of bravado and practicality. A solo cello accompaniment for Waltraute was almost intuitive given the personal, haunting tone of the scene: I scored it with Britten’s canticles in mind. The aquatic timbre of vibraphone and marimba for the Rheinmaidens was perhaps my earliest idea, and would dovetail nicely with Siegfried’s death. The harp’s prominent role in the original score in the latter scene was an easy addition. A violin was included for melodic grace, and a horn moved from the Immolation allotment to this scene for richness.

For the final scene, a fairly standard but rich complement was agreed of flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, cello and bass, beefed up with an electronic keyboard.

With fifteen instruments therefore allocated, I had three instruments left to choose for the Alberich and Hagen scene, complicated by its being arguably the most rhythmically complex scene in Wagner’s output. To depict Alberich’s manic, desperate state, Wagner writes him a frenzied vocal line with almost no anchoring to a downbeat, other than harmonic shifts. These harmonies weave in and out of the foundations of some of the cycle’s most tonally elusive motifs, limned by ghostly motival figurations in the winds. Most challengingly there’s no discernible – and more importantly vocally reliable – beat. This is difficult enough when you have a 106-piece orchestra providing foundation and a conductor visibly signaling the beat. Designing this scene as a free form chamber piece with the five performers interacting sympathetically was going to require some reinforcement. I wound up creating a previously non-existent bass line so the singers – particularly Alberich – would have some sense of location. 

The choice of electric bass was to some extent inspired by the casting as Hagen of the incomparable Morris Robinson, a bass voice that I wanted to give full room to shine with just the barest accompaniment. This meant eliminating Wagner’s omnipresent churning harmonic background in his passages, but that could be retained for Alberich and provide a vivid sonic contrast between the two characters. 

So I needed a portable polyphonic instrument for Alberich’s sections: a keyboard of some sort. Which couldn’t be an actual keyboard as one was already designated for the Immolation scene and we wanted to avoid duplication. I think I proposed an accordion half facetiously… a distilled beverage may possibly have been involved. In hindsight it proved a weirdly effective choice. The bass clarinet was a holdover from Yuval’s interest in having this scene feature low instruments, and it didn’t hurt that the player was one of the orchestra’s top. (Alex Ross’ description of this scene as “superbly clammy” in The New Yorker may well stand as the highlight of my career.)

It only remained to make all these ideas work on paper.

September, 2020: Meta orchestration geeking: helping to host a master class with one of Broadway’s most legendary orchestrators, Jonathan Tunick, while listening to the master discuss his incomparable art, WHILE working on the Twilight: Gods orchestrations.


It’s been difficult to coherently organize all my news since my last post. Life since the winter of 2019 has been, to put it mildly, chaotic. Many accomplishments, many reversals, some reversals which turned out to be accomplishments. Which is a post in itself.

For better or worse, it seems that at the height of chaos, the Universe or the Force or however you care to regard it has a tendency to throw me a psychological lifeline. Which, bizarrely, most often centers around Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra

In September of 2014, struggling with a fairly flattening romantic situation, I was approached by a small New York opera company to undertake an edition of Elektra for considerably reduced orchestra. (Read all about it on my Elektra-lite blog!) While the company wound up backing out of the project, my pursuance of the edition and publicizing of it brought me two other orchestration assignments – one of them actually involving the full scale Elektra

Work on this reduction eventually came to the attention of the peerless dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, an artist I’ve admired since her days as a lyric soprano with a renowned stage presence and sense of humor, qualities that have only heightened over time. Her Armida in Rinaldo in 2000 left me both enraptured and doubled over. And her much heralded transition to the major heavyweight roles, particularly in the Wagnerian rep and its ilk, has put her in the top ranks of her fach. There never has been, nor currently is, another artist who so completely realizes both vocally and dramatically the title role of Strauss’s harrowing opera.

The above panegyric will give some indication of my astonishment when, in June of this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic having shut down the entirety of in-person performing arts across the U.S.,  Christine herself contacted me with a proposal:

Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit was shortly to announce the hiring of a new artistic director, Yuval Sharon – the recipient of widespread acclaim for his work both at his self-founded Los Angeles opera company as well as some of Europe’s most hallowed venues, including Bayreuth.

As his inaugural project, Yuval wanted MOT, in a joint commission with Lyric Opera of Chicago, to brave the new and still tricky world of safe in-person operatic experience with a reimagining of Wagner’s six hour (if you’re lucky) Götterdämmerung, the final opera of his titanic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungs. Naturally with Christine performing her matchless Brünnhilde.

Yuval specifically conceived the production to be performed live by an opera company, or at least by operatically trained singers, and to utilize – and more importantly provide employment for – an opera company’s stage crew and orchestra. His idea was a one-hour condensing of the opera centered on four of its key scenes, with the extensive narrative material supplied by Detroit poet Marsha Music. It would be staged in the parking garage MOT owned across the street from the Detroit Opera House, one scene per level. The transition between scenes would be by Marsha’s narration and sound design by Lewis Nicolas Pesacov based on Wagner’s score.

The singers would perform Wagner’s original music with a new English translation by Yuval to make the experience less distancing for the local audience. Each scene would be accompanied by a small chamber group of instrumentalists, conductorless, working symbiotically with the singers. Would I be interested in abridging and reducing Wagner’s monumental soundscape?

In order for the production to make even partial financial sense, a minimum number of ticket holders / cars would have to be accommodated across the planned three hour span of each evening. The computations wound up at 8 cars per rotation, 12 rotations running simultaneously across that three hour period, with a 30 minute break in the middle. Meaning that each scene would be performed 12 times in quick succession every night. (On opening night, this was increased to 14 rotations due to the high demand for tickets.) Each scene could not be longer than 8 minutes so as to keep each rotation within the overall 55 minute cap. (Think the narrative rides at Disney World).

Which posed all sorts of challenges for me as the arranger and orchestrator to make each scene fit within the inflexible parameters while not being overly taxing for the performers.

Still, the chance to work with arguably one of the most imaginative directors living? On a piece I love? To help restore some work to the performing arts, and confidence to its patrons? AND TO WORK WITH CHRISTINE GOERKE?

Reader, I allowed myself to be persuaded.

WHAT’S HAPPENING Reviewing 2018

img_0701Death. And gratitude. Two states you don’t necessarily pair together. (Also, got your attention, didn’t I?)

This particularly eventful past year reminds me that similar years in my life seem to contain a significant amount of death, and yet a lot of achievement.

The last such year was 2003 where there were three in a row, each one successively more personal and more devastating. Last year there were six, and while I was not connected to any of them even remotely as closely as the 2003 departed, the result has still been emotionally impactful.

Interestingly, both years saw major creative advancement for me. The earthquakes of 2003 forced me to face my status and aspirations as a not full-time musician, and address them. Fifteen years later, I find myself amazingly in me a place to consider some real personal achievements, made all the more precious when juxtaposed with loss.

yvww5gkb_400x400Perhaps the most resounding death last year both directly and generally was that of Matt Marks, a wonderously spirited young composer based in Brooklyn. Matt tragically passed unexpectedly in mid-May, less than a week before the start of the 2018 New Music Gathering, of which he was one of the five founders. His death had the same impact for the overall event as it did personally for me: to relish and be grateful for the extraordinary camaraderie of new music practitioners who’ve connected and communed and supported and inspired and encouraged each other, both this year and in the past. To seize the day, chase the long-shot opportunity, embrace the far-fetched idea.

And as I look back on 2018, with its unusual share of turbulence, this gratitude encapsulates the last decade for me. The community of dedicated, generous, supportive artists I’ve connected and worked with in both the new concert music and theatrical worlds has been one of the great gifts of my recent life. That several of these folks were among this year’s departed makes my appreciation for this community all the greater. I’m particularly indebted to the New Music Gathering and Musochat worlds, who’ve done so much to connect me to the outside world, and without whose encouragement and stimulation my most recent creative achievements might not exist.

Amongst which, there’s the minor feat of the jazz-era HMS Pinafore (see previous post), one of the great thrills of my life.

Act 2 Finale, H.M.S. Pinafore
Photography courtesy of Nanc Price.

The trip to Edmonton for the Pinafore premiere allowed me to complete my Ruminations for solo piano, a rhapsody that I’ve been noodling with for over ten years. Sometimes, you just have to wait and let the material gestate until you’re at the right level of progression to formalize it.

Post-premiere picture of the composer and the Gaudete Brass Quintet

This fall I had the delight of having Peal Off , inspired by the Gaudete Brass Quintet, officially commissioned and then premiered by them in Chicago amidst the festivities of the 2018 Midwest Clinic, as well as finalizing commissions for a viola duo for new music super-advocate Michael Hall and a choral setting of W.S. Graham’s “Listen. Put On Morning” for a group soon to be announced.

fullsizerenderUnder discussion are a medley arrangement for large symphonic concert band of a certain popular Broadway musical (no hints = no jinxes), and a piece for bass oboe and piano.

Capping it all off was the extreme honor of having my setting of A.E. Stallings‘ “Blackbird Etude” from my Opus 22 set of songs chosen by luminous mezzo-soprano and equal new music superadvocate Megan Ihnen for inclusion in the mezzo volume of the first anthology of new art song published by New Music Shelf (the distributors of my vocal and chamber music). The selection of the song by the this gorgeous, vibrant, spell binding singer and her subsequent performance of it with pianist Marianne Parker at the volume’s inauguration concert are another of this year’s capstones.


No less an achievement last year was my decision to depart the corporate world I’ve relied on for decades to provide me with the financial stability that is vital to my creative output. The time had come to fully take charge of my own destiny and start my own business as a virtual manager / coordinator / assistant / problem solver. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post in the context of being a 5-to-9 artist, but the first six months have seen a major improvement in my life overall.

Fifteen years ago it was a struggle not to buckle under the losses in my life. Today, I am inexpressibly grateful for the stratosphere of amazing people – too many to list here – that I’ve become connected to and what they’ve helped me achieve.

Photograph courtesy of Alex Shapiro


I feel I should point out, after an eight month blogging hiatus, that I’m nowhere near as bad with my music deadlines as I am with keeping up on my social media and blog stuff. But it’s sure been a musically demanding past couple of months. Partially due to other commitments, partially settling back in to my other reality (aka my day job), and partially from reveling in and reflecting on all the experiences, I’m just now catching up. There’s too much to cram into one post, so let’s start with the farther dates.

The week before Christmas I attended my first Midwest Clinic, the U.S.’ largest congress for wind, big bands and educational ensembles, held annually in Chicago at the end of December. It’s always a treat to be in the Windy City, though for those of us who embrace the Yuletide, the scheduling of this right before the holidays is daunting. It was a great time, but boy howdy you get some workout racing from one seminar or concert to another through the mammoth McCormick Place conference center (four months later I still have a bunion on my left foot from from the endless sprinting).

An inadequate sense of the behemoth presentation space at Midwest Clinic.The band world is one I’ve had limited exposure to, so it was fantastic and eye opening to be immersed in it for three days. What a massive display (17,000 attendees!) of extraordinary talent and enthusiasm, especially from performers mostly still in high school. What a treat to meet, hang out and share ideas with such a panoply of composers and performers. And there can be no better gift to oneself at any time of year than extended time with the glorious, luminous Alex Shapiro and the inimitable duo Frank Oteri and Trudy Chan.

Composers noshing at Midwest Clinic 2017

Larger societal issues played through my head during the conference. On one hand, with the long-overdue repercussions from the #metoo movement still very much in the news, I was disappointed that the number of women and POC composers seemed fairly small (I understand anecdotally that it’s improved since previous years). On the other, I was aware that so many of the organization leaders I interacted with – mostly older, Caucasian, heterosexual men from parts of the country I’ve yet to visit – probably held differing social and political views to myself. Yet here we were, interacting perfectly amicably and enthusiastically in the full camaraderie of our shared love of music. A heartening reminder of what a leveling, binding thing the arts can be.

What if anything comes from my visit remains to be seen. The joy of the camaraderie alone was worth it. I’ve got several chats to follow up on, and I would love to try my hand at this unique instrumental soundscape (Off Beat for band, anyone?). Still, it’s such an enormous, wide spread, involved genre requiring much time and dedication in terms of networking and cultivation… but as the last five years have repeatedly proven to me, you never know.

IMG_1989Then after a quick breather for the holidays, it was time to prep for the premiere of my jazz re-write of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore at Edmonton Opera.





IMG_0016It still seems slightly surreal to have blithely taken a one week sabbatical from a demanding corporate office job with no connection whatsoever to the arts – especially music – packed my warmest clothing and gone off to northern Canada to mount a brand new jazz version for a hefty cast and a 40-piece hybrid orchestra written in something of a vacuum of a beloved Gilbert & Sullivan classic. Ironically, the constant flux and turmoil at this current day job over the last seven years may have provided beneficial preparation for this experience. My role has been changed so many times and to such an extent that heading off to tackle the first outing of this two hour 10 minute production, with the inevitable hiccups, rewrites, on the spot changes – including creating an unforeseen auxiliary percussion part in approximately one hour  – seemed largely unremarkable.

In hindsight, it was anything but unremarkable, and was certainly a joy to be a part of. Having previously been involved in smaller, less complicated productions, it was something else have an integral role in this lavishly conceived, costumed and cast production, and to have come away proud that I matched the level of the rest of the creative team. I can’t praise them enough: director Rob Herriott, assistant director Farren Timoteo, choreographer Jason Hardwick, costume designer Deanna Finnman, set designer Camellia Koo, lighting designer Geoffrey George, and sound designer Robert Smale.

Post-rehearsal stage-door fans.

And what a luxurious cast featuring entirely Canadian talent, a lot of it local: Vanessa Oude-Reimerink, Adrian Kramer, Glenn Nelson, Bridget Ryan, Geoffrey Sirret, Dion Mazerolle, Ryan Parker, and Glynis Price. The Opera’s game chorus dove in to the spirit with high kicking heels and made a glorious noise in both finales. I’m eternally grateful to CEO Tim Yakimec for entrusting me with this assignment, and bow to artistic director Ha Neul Kim, who not only handles all the logistics of the company but stage manages every production and calls every performance.  I’m equally grateful to conductor Peter Dala brought my ideas spectacularly to life, and to the Edmonton Symphony for patiently working their way through all the changes and performing it with such panache.

The warmth of the artistic experience undoubtedly helped erase any indication of being in arctic climes at the end of January. Despite temperatures generally below 0० Farenheit, I found the weather delightfully bracing. Edmonton certainly has the most pristine snow of any city I’ve visited: no matter where you went, with the exception of the center the roads, the snow IMG_0053 was untouched and breathtaking. Which when you’re used to New York City’s almost instant sullying of its snowfall is remarkable. (Mind you, I didn’t see a single dog during my trip, which might have something to do with it.) And this kind of weather is happily conducive to indulging in the city’s many culinary pleasures. My decision to undertake this project with it’s gelid timing was influenced in no small part by the opportunity to properly explore Edmonton’s food scene, and especially to return to Rge Rd, a trip I happily saved for opening night. Don’t fail to make this eatery a top priority if you’re visiting.

Of the many unforgettable memories I’ll retain from this experience – the thrill of hearing a piece that so challenged my talents come out so right, the backstage giggles, the camaraderie, the decadent culinary pleasures, the gorgeous landscape – one will easily top the rest. Our final dress rehearsal was held in front of an audience of local school children – filling the 2300 seat Jubilee Auditorium’s to capacity. Wrapped up as I was in concentrating on the stage specifics, it wasn’t until Act 2 that I became aware of their growing delight with the performance, which they indicated with almost deafening cheers at curtain. I’ll always regret not getting a picture with the group that recognized me afterwards from the program – none of whom could have been older than nine – and were enthusing about how much they’d loved the experience. Tim had opened the show with a welcome speech hoping that the experience might inspire some of them to pursue artistic or theatrical careers. It’s goose-bumpingly awe inspiring to think, from the glee exhibited as they exited, that in my small way I may have inluenced that.

“J.S.S. Pinafore” cast and team opening night

I contributed some thoughts to the opera’s website on the creative process behind the show. This teaser video by the company gives a nice overview of the show’s look, and you can check out other aspects of the show on the dedicated page on my site.


OK, that’s enough for one post, don’t you agree?


75e24bcac54bfb82ef88e7b963598109As the end of the summer of 2017 looms on the horizon, so does the balance of work on my first full scale, publicly produced theatrical orchestration. What an incredible experience it’s been, easily the most challenging and delightful project I’ve undertaken in my still nascent orchestration career, calling on skills I haven’t utilized to this extent, or at all. The circumstances of both its advent and the results are worth recounting.

A week after this past presidential election, which left me in a severely traumatized state wondering how I and the majority of America were going to find our way through the horror that loomed, providence came to rescue my sanity in the form of the Edmonton Opera in Alberta, Canada. They needed help making some minor orchestration adjustments to one of their upcoming pieces. I was so relieved to have the distraction from the increasingly appalling news cycle that I nearly offered to pay them for the job, rather than the opposite.

As that project neared completion, they broached another with me.  Gilbert and Sullivan’s beloved 1878 operetta HMS Pinafore was slated for their upcoming season, but they wanted to give it a fresh spin by recasting it in a 1920’s jazz idiom. The setting would be transferred to a glamorous cruise ship of the period, and the story line tailored accordingly. Would I be interested in giving Sullivan’s score a new, swinging, full orchestration?

Just to put the project in context, let’s review my situation when it was offered to me:

  • I’ve had minimal jazz arranging experience, and none with this particular genre.
  • My acquaintance with G&S is equally minimal. Outside of Mikado, I know almost none of the canon, and only vestigially the more famous numbers from Pinafore.
  • I’ve never yet undertaken a more than one-act show.
  • I’ve never single-handedly undertaken a theatrical orchestration for a newly created work involving more than 8 players. (My reductions of existing works don’t fall in this category).
  • I’m still working a full time corporate day job five days a week. Meaning I would be undertaking this score at night and on weekends.

So of course my response was, absolutely! Because you never know whether you can do something till you try.

7570e5_ac2d4e33ad6b4244b177a04d9a7b23fb_mv2This is not the first attempt at jazzing a G&S work. The Hot Mikado remains very well known, and Pinafore itself has had a few refittings. In 1943 the legendary Broadway orchestrator Don Walker attempted a version titled Memphis Bound with himself as both composer and orchestrator. It incorporates elements from a few other G&S shows and starred the equally legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson leading an all African-American cast. It died a quick death and almost none of the music survives, that I can find.

In 1955, Perry Como had a half hour big band version created for his television show, viewable on youtube. The aesthetic behind this is the late swing, big band era. I have yet to watch the whole thing, as I didn’t want to unintentionally find myself influenced by it.

So as far as I can tell, this is the first Pinafore to use a 1920’s jazz aesthetic.

The first step was to make sure everyone at the opera understood the scope of the project from a musical perspective. Giving a jazz flavor to such a Victorian score wasn’t simply a matter of adding a few saxes and a drum kit to the pit. Aside from the extensive new instrumental dressing, parts of the score would have to be reharmonized, and almost the entire rhythmic structure, including the vocal lines, rewritten. At any rate, a substantial undertaking.

I’m now going to bring up the traditionally unspoken issue of fees, solely to point out the eventual happy result. With the realization that they faced the unanticipated cost of producing almost entirely new vocal scores and orchestral parts, the amount Edmonton could ultimately afford for an orchestration fee would only permit me to do somewhere between one half to two thirds of the existing score, not taking into account expansions that might (and did) arise.

Rather than view this as a hindrance, I embraced this limitation and proposed doing the show deliberately as a hybrid: one half traditional, one half jazzed. This might provide an interesting dramaturgical highlight of the piece’s commentary on class and elitism: the older, gentrified characters retaining their traditional music, and the music of the younger, “lower” characters recolored in jazz, with the whole cast migrating entirely to jazz for a rousing finale.

This proposal was enthusiastically received by the rest of the creative team. A salutary reminder that what can seem like a limitation may actually result in something better! Also to not underestimate the dramaturgical abilities of an orchestrator.

9f1dfd73951b17df01026ddb5e410950--old-dogs-life-coverThe one unforeseen challenge for me of this hybrid proposal was one of the more unique orchestral complements I’ve worked with so far.  To accommodate the jazz side, a rhythm section would be needed: drums, piano, banjo, as well as saxes for period color.  The traditional side of the score would require the retention of a full string body, and a trio of upper woodwinds that won’t be doubling. The brass would bridge the two worlds. Ultimately an orchestra of 30 players was defined: considerably larger and richer than the standard dectet that constituted a jazz ensemble of the period. The result is essentially a Golden Era Broadway orchestra and sound, and that is largely how I’ve treated it.

Another fascinating aspect to this project has been its Carrollian work flow. When creating a new musical — which is effectively what’s happening with this project — the typical process would be having the lyricist and composer and book writer come up with the base material, which is then routined and expanded in terms of staging, often to the extent of full workshops with actors and instrumentalists. In the case of major projects, particularly Broadway-bound, those workshops can be multiples across many years. While the orchestrator may be kept abreast or involved in the ongoing process, he or she doesn’t begin proper work until relatively late in the game, at a point when the music and general staging have largely been finalized. This allows the orchestrator to base his or her coloristic and gestural choices off of these elements.

In contrast, this Pinafore necessitated a reversal of that process. Needing sufficient time to extract orchestral material and create the new vocal scores to allow the performers to learn them, the request was for me to fully orchestrate and do vocal arrangements for the designated portions of the score as the very first step, using my own judgement and imagination to make any additions, expansions, condensings, coloristic and gestural choices, with the understanding that the direction and revised libretto would be based off my work. In effect, to stage these numbers in my head on my own, so that my score could reflect the action I imagined. This situation was both empowering and intimidating. Most orchestrators, myself included, prefer to have some kind of staging or character definition to inspire their choices, since orchestration should ultimately reflect the character or stage action. Being given almost carte blanche brought me occasionally to a halt, a situation happily resolved as director Rob Herriott began to share his thoughts for this or that number and we bounced ideas off each other.

So that’s been my summer of 2017, spent largely as a shut in. Accomplishing this hefty undertaking while keeping up my full time corporate day job has meant sacrificing almost any social life for the last three months, a situation I’m very much looking forward to making up for once while I’m on my annual summer trip to Nantucket. As well as devoting my energies again to my own concert works.

File_001 (2)But what a trip! Immersing myself in the musical vernacular of the period, living with the period’s great recording artists – Fletcher Henderson, King Oliver, Satch, Irving Aranson, Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, and even better the living keepers of the flame, principally Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks. Sitting in this summer on their weekly gigs at the Cafe Iguana in New York’s theater district has been the most amazing, intoxicating and invaluable learning experience and has made all the difference to this score, while Vince himself has been unfailingly generous with his advice. If you’re in New York and are at loose ends on a Monday or Tuesday, I can’t recommend this superb group enough.

EO PinaforeAt the risk of immodesty or jinxing the ultimate production, I’m fairly pleased with what I’ve turned out, and the costume and stage designs I’ve seen promise a corker of a show. I’ll be posting any audio and visual media I can, but if you’re in the area, come check it out live.

LOVE IN: Reflections on my first New Music Gathering

425421825I’ve just returned from attending my first New Music Gathering, which in only its third year has become arguably the premier annual congress of the American new music community. Based on my experience there, that doesn’t surprise me: this was one of the most fantastic events I’ve participated in. Such an amazing assemblage of warm, enthusiastic people from around the country: composers, performers, administrators, multiple-hat-wearers, spending three days getting to know one another, exchanging ideas, savoring contemporary concert music in a spirit of support, conviviality, camaraderie and inclusion that I haven’t experienced since I was at conservatory.

After an inception year in San Francisco, and last year in Baltimore, the Gathering was invited to occur at Bowling Green University in Ohio, which put a wealth of resources and personnel behind the event. In hindsight, I’m glad this slightly remote location was my first. Word is that attendance was a little lower this year compared to last, which helped one feel not overwhelmed. Plus it was good to get out of my East Coast bubble and meet so many people I might not have otherwise.

Some thoughts in no particular order:

  1. Go. If your budget and schedule and logistics permit it, make this event a priority.
  2. Take lots of business cards. If you don’t have any, get some, they’re easily and economically acquired: moo.com or vista.com are both very reasonable. And on this subject, check out the invaluable Portfolio Composer’s very sound guidelines on this subject.
  3. I arrived with a bit of an “acquisition” mindset: commissions, performances, financial or portfolio expansion. I quickly lost that and am really glad. Attend for the camaraderie, the sharing and experiencing of new ideas, the sheer joy of being immersed in an event and community devoted to the creation, support and promulgation of new music of all varieties.
  4. Don’t worry about whether your style fits into what you think or have heard is the primary aesthetic at NMG. All styles, genres, and levels are embraced.
  5. I wish I’d reached out a little more to people on the sidelines. For some people, events like these can be intimidating: who will I talk to, eat with, rely on. Many of us were probably at some time that person clinging to the wall in the corner, struggling to interact. Reach out to those people, who knows where it may lead.
  6. On this theme: have at least one meal a day with a person or group you don’t know, either well or at all. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to expand your horizons and circles. I inadvertently found myself with the same group much of the time, and while I reveled in their company and wouldn’t have missed that for anything, still I wish I’d had just a little wider interaction. Ask to join a group for a meal who you don’t know. If you’re the group being asked, say yes.
  7. If you’re a performer or composer, participate in Speed Dating (see below). Don’t just watch or audit: plunge in. It’s a little nerve wracking but so empowering and satisfying.
  8. Attend things you might be skeptical of. The concert offerings are almost overwhelming in their wealth, many of which I didn’t get to and wish I had. Best example of this: A performance of Variations 3 by John Cage, a composer whose theories I’ve admired more than enjoyed the actual experience. This performance blew my mind and left me on a heart-stopping, teary high I won’t soon forget: mesmerizing, ethereal, breathtaking, goose bumping, a reaction I suspect was universally shared by all those in attendance. All hail Tim Feeney, Lou Bunk and the army of participants they gathered for making this happen: it was magical.
  9. Don’t be afraid to take a break, even if it means missing something you want or feel you ought to catch. Each day is an intense slate of back to back, conflicting temptations and it’s easy to get burned out. By day 3 I  was glad that I’d taken the time to recharge for a bit in the afternoon or evening – even if it meant missing something – and finding myself in better shape for the later activities.
  10. Last, but most important: GO.

I’m fairly confident I speak for all those who attended in not being able to adequately express thanks to BGSU, Kurt Doles and his amazing team, the indefatigable Larry and Arlene Dunn who put everyone else to shame with their energy and enthusiasm, and most importantly the Gathering’s tireless, generous founders: Lainie Fefferman, Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Matt Marks and Jascha Narveson. I can’t wait for the next one.

speedddateSo what is Speed Dating?

NMG Speed Dating was founded by Brooks Frederickson, who gives a soignee precis of the idea. But if, as I was, you’re  looking for more detail prior to this undertaking:

  • Speed Dating connects performers and composers for short bursts across a one hour span to  learn about each other and see if there is potential for collaboration.
  • Two circles of chairs are set up, one set facing the other. Composers sit in the outer circle, performers on their inner circle.
  • Every four minutes, an alarm is sounded and the performers all move one chair to their left, the composers remaining stationary. Meaning that theoretically across a  60 minute span you should meet 15 different people. In reality I met 10, which is 10 more than I’d ordinarily meet in a 60 hour period, much less 60 minutes.
  • Both sides are encouraged to have brief audio samples of their work available. The onus is on the composers, but I was delighted so many of the performers brought theirs: I’m still catching up on those.
  • Materials: Some sort of portable audio playing device with headphones and your selections easily accessible, and optionally a method of displaying your scores. On the headphones: I recommend proper large scale headphones rather than earbuds, which depending on the brand can take some figuring out, and time is precious. Some people brought physical scores, most of us used devices (laptops, tablets, etc) to display our scores digitally. I don’t think having scores was a major issue: I’d say half of the performers concentrated on listening to the samples and didn’t worry about the scores. Still, it doesn’t hurt. If you’re not on issuu.com, this is a fantastic free resource used by many composers, and increasingly the major publishers, for displaying perusal scores.
  • Have your business cards (see above) easily on hand. Make sure you have a secure, reliable receptacle (an envelope, box, pocket) to stash the ones you get.
  • Bring paper:  take notes on you who met, who they were and what if any connection there was.
  • What should your conversation be? With no background to guide me, I opted for the approach of  “Oh, you’re a [insert type of performer here], let me play you this which I think will be up your alley and which you will hopefully perform or be interested in creating something new of the same kind.” In hindsight I’m rethinking that: the sagacious Garrett Hope opted to spend those four minutes more talking with each performer to get to know them and their aesthetic and mutual sympathies, and was less interested in pushing this or that piece on them. Choose for yourself.
  • Assemble and test your sound clips ahead of time (soundcloud is great for this). Curate them carefully. Remember you’ve only got about four minutes per exchange. If you’re like me and write broad structured music where it can take a while to get into a piece and grasp its diversity, you might want to create 30-second clips to offer variety, rather than hoping to get through one minute or so of the opening of a piece which may not reflect its variety and breadth within that limit.

It might sound a little gimmicky and perhaps a little contrary to making deeper connections. But as with all things at NMG, you never know, and in those four minutes you might dazzle a new collaborator. Despite the intensity of the session and the strain that the noise level puts on the throat, I wish it had gone on at least another 30 minutes, if not an hour. At the very least you’ll walk out with no less than you came in with, and you might walk out with people wanting to follow up and work together. By all means, go for it.


IMG_1318.JPGI’ve been remiss in keeping up to date with news, but happily that’s because there’s been so much developing. Between travel, the day job which is always crazy during the first quarter of the year, and music projects, things at Nibbleheim haven’t been dull.

274.JPGI was lucky enough to attend the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer’s Institute in January, as an auditor. After the trauma of the election, which very much colored my holiday, this trip turned out to be just the tonic my psyche needed – no beach could have been better. What a gift to be able to sit in on this invaluable program and interact with this world-class ensemble who are so dedicated to and invested in fostering new music and developing composers, and with such depth: in addition to three days of seminars from industry leaders, the composers got a reading session, two full rehearsals, and a public concert that sold incredibly well and was nationally broadcast. It was so soul-restoring to be reminded that there are still large organizations and patrons dedicated  to fostering new music, including on scales such as this. Plus the treat of getting to know the wonderful folks at American Composers Forum, who co-host the Institute. I can’t encourage young composers enough to apply for this. Sure, it’s a bit of a long shot, but you’ll never know till you try and the experience alone, aside from the opportunity to work directly with this storied ensemble, is so worth it.

IMG_1254For me, the trip would have been worth it just for three straight days with Frank Oteri, arguably the greatest brain in the American new music scene, and himself a fantastic composer.

Then it was back to New York for my seventh year as co-producer and music supervisor for Broadway Belts for PFF!, the annual fundraiser I helped found in honor of my friend Michael Kuchwara to battle ideopathic pulmonary fibrosis. This event amazes me every year: despite months of ricocheting communications, uncertainty and a thinly stretched team, we never fail to turn out an extraordinary show featuring current and veteran Broadway talent. This year we lucked out on having as our headliner legendary Broadway and R&B star Stephanie Mills.  What a thrill to work with this luminous artist who gave me goose bumps as a child in the original production of The Wiz, and gave me even more during our show.

_JAA6560_editedThen it was off to Edmonton, Canada for a little gig for their wonderful opera company, and to Los Angeles to supervise a conference for my day job (the header photo of this post was taken on the travel day between both locations). A late winter week in warm, mellow Venice Beach is not a bad thing: sometimes being a 5 to 9 or dayjobbing artist has its perks.

File_000 (11)Speaking of Edmonton Opera: my biggest news (at least that’s confirmed and I can publicize) is that I’ve signed on to do vocal arrangements and orchestrations for a new “hybrid” version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore for their upcoming season. This has been a fascinating and terrific experience, working with a superb creative team. Faced with a few limitations, we’ve wound up coming up with something unique and great fun, which only goes to show you what you can create out of limitations. You can read more about it here. It’s probably immodest to say that I think some of the ideas I’ve come up with so far are the bees’ knees… but I do.

And if you’ve been keeping up with my blog about my reduction of Strauss’ Elektra, you’ll have seen that note entry on this modest little pastime is finally done and the score is in the initial stages of proofreading. As a result, orchestras in both Australia and Germany have approached me about premiering it, probably early next year.  More on that when it’s nailed down.

363.JPGComing up: New Music Gathering in Bowling Green, OH in early May. I’m really looking forward to attending this for the first time and meeting artists I’ve gotten to know through @musochat, as well as others. If you’re also attending, please introduce yourself! Then it’s home to roll up my sleeves and hibernate on the Pinafore project for the summer, with a little attention to some of my own personal work in between.

WHAT’S HAPPENING: December, 2016

IMG_1144.JPG.jpgIf you follow me on social media at all, you’ll know that the last month has been profoundly disturbing to me, as it has been to most of the U.S. artistic community. The repugnance of the election cycle, the outcome, and the ensuing insanity from both the new administration and its supporters have left me traumatized and questioning the nature of the country I call home.

But I’ve learned that it avails one nothing to sit around and stew. It has been both empowering and reassuring to join with other artists here in the New York area both to express my dissent against the stated repressive intentions of the administration and to explore ways to affect the situation.

First step is to recalibrate: I’m shutting off all news sources, social media, and interruptions during the holidays and immersing myself in music, both mine and others.

If you’re a jazz fan and need a little extra swing to kick your holidays in to gear, or just to divert your mind, maybe my Spotify playlist Yuletide Swing can be of use.

Wishing all a happy, hopeful and peaceful holidays season.