One of the unspeakably-great joys of creating concert programs that meld seemingly disparate worlds of music is the unique, Eureka! moment that happen when the elements line up Just So. The thing is, it can be a long, oftentimes frustrating, frequently tedious, sometimes even panic-inducing road to get to that glorious moment of Eureka!
Over the years I’ve worked with the East Metro Symphony Orchestra (and its former identity as the 3M Orchestra) we have had the good fortune to present three of Duke Ellington’s extended works composed for his jazz “orchestra” that were brilliantly orchestrated for symphony orchestra. (These were New World A-Comin’ in 2002 with incomparable pianist Laura Caviani, Grand Slam Jam, and Ellington Portrait in 2008 with Bend in the River Big Band.) So when it came time to plan a second joint concert with Bend in the River Big Band it seemed like a no-brainer to seize the opportunity and prepare another major Ellington work that could utilize both big band and symphony orchestra. We chose his monumental work, Black, Brown and Beige, which was lovingly, meticulously arranged for symphony orchestra (incorporating “big band” instruments) by the great American conductor, Maurice Peress.
All of the Ellington works prepared for symphony orchestra are only available as rentals from major music publishers, and as such were only available to us 4 weeks ahead of our performance date (although for an additional charge we had the ability to take delivery an additional 2 weeks ahead of this). The terms of these rentals have been developed over time to suit the needs and resources of major, professional orchestras, that have a library staff to oversee preparation of all music, and rehearsal/performance schedules wherein the actual printed music is only needed for at most one week of intense rehearsals and performances (not to mention annual budgets in the 100’s-of-thousands-of-dollars-and-up range, where a rental fee of $500+ is a simple cost of doing business rather than a considerable chunk of the organizational budget). Since a community orchestra such as ours rehearses its music over a 6-8 week period of weekly rehearsals, having the actual printed music available to us for 4 – or even a leisurely 6 – weeks is cutting things very closely. Since a community orchestra has no library staff, the preparation of parts is left to the very part-time music director. Thus when the box of Duke Ellington music showed up on my doorstep, precisely 6 weeks before our scheduled performance, making sense of parts for 24 instruments and the handwritten orchestra score simply took over my life (and dining room table).
Frankly, sitting down and examining each individual orchestra part against the full score is a rare luxury in a time-crunched life. So as painful as it was to be hunched over the dining room table, gripping my pencil for hours at a time, it was a grand way to actually familiarize myself with the intricacies of the music. Unfortunately, it also led me to conclude that for our purposes, this music – this magnificent, insightful, creative music – would not work. The full score was actually a duplicate copy of the conductor/arranger’s scribbled, rough draft of his work, with long passages of notes simply not there, and some notes misplaced onto the wrong staves. And as in all hastily, scribbled rough drafts, the rest was simply quite challenging to read. The conductor of a professional or high-level university orchestra can confidently distribute parts to her musicians, knowing that each and every one of them has the resources and commitment to figure out and master the intricacies of even the most vexing part. A community orchestra, however, is composed of a grand variety of people who play their instruments and comprehend musical nuances on a wide variety of levels. A conductor needs to have a score with which any and all questions can be easily answered, confusions clarified in a glance. So after a week of feverish study – and now 5 weeks before our scheduled performance – I concluded we could not perform Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige suite, which was to be the cornerstone of a unique, joint concert. So now what??
The key to a successful, mutually-enlightening performing partnership is the knowledgeable and thoughtful creativeness of its leaders. Bob Hallquist, director of Bend in the River Big Band, easily meets those criteria. With a lifetime spent as performing musician, educator, music director and even music publisher, his knowledge and understanding is broad and deep, and so is his ability to creatively problem solve. Our major problem to solve was to find a way for the band and orchestra to perform something together that was more than the sum of its parts, something that would be meaningful to all involved and illuminating to our audience. And we needed the answer immediately because the orchestra was already several weeks into its preparation period for this concert.
Thus it was to my utter delight that this email appeared in my inbox:
…and on it went, not just leading me through the exact plan of how to weave together two different medleys of “big band” music (one for orchestra, one for band), but later suggesting which orchestra parts members of his band might be able to double in our arrangement (and how these parts would need to be transposed for the band instruments). He concluded this jewel of an email with copies of several individual parts for the band medley and a recording of the piece.
And just like that, this significant problem was solved!
We still have much work to do for our performance on March 3, not the least of which is simply rehearsing our music. (The orchestra rehearses every Tuesday evening in Woodbury and the band monthly on Sunday evenings in Apple Valley, so there will be no joint rehearsals until the dress rehearsal that takes place the day before our performance.) I’m still collecting the individual parts of Salute to the Big Bands Bob asked for, after which I’ll scan them into my Sibelius music writing software and transpose so his instrumentalists can play along with the orchestra for parts of our final, joint composition. Big bands generally announce the music they are performing from the stage as they go along in performance, rather than creating a formal list of music to be performed for a printed program. But Bob will be preparing that list for us, since it is our custom to include this in our printed program. We actually won’t even know how we will configure our stage set-up until our dress rehearsal. It’s complicated to have a set-up with enough flexibility that:
1. the band can perform alone,
2. the orchestra can perform alone (augmented by the band’s rhythms section – drumset, keyboard and bass),
3. the band can perform with just our string section,
4. the band and orchestra can perform together, but in such a way that members of the band can play with sections of the orchestra one moment, but also perform cohesively as a band in the next moment.
What’s more, we want to invite members of our audience to come up on stage and dance if they feel so moved (or just dance in the aisles if that’s more comfortable).
The hallmark of most orchestra concerts is preparation so exacting that the performers and audience can be assured a dependable and predictable experience. Joint performances reaching across conventional boundaries of musical genre have too many unknowns to offer any such assurances. However what we do offer is tremendous excitement and enlightening experiences for performers and audience alike. I heartily encourage you to join us to see how it all turns out!
Elizabeth Prielozny Barnes
Music Director and Conductor
The East Metro Symphony Orchestra and Bend in the River Big Band present
Sounds of Swing
Sunday, March 3, 2013 @ 2:00 p.m.
East Ridge High School, Woodbury
For more information: