WHAT’S HAPPENING: Winter 2018

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.

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

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WHAT’S HAPPENING: Summer 2017

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.