¡Ay Caramba! Interview with “The Simpsons” composer Alf Clausen

“This is the most exciting thing I’ve seen since Halley’s comet collided with the moon.” The Bridge Recording studio in Glendale greeted Alf Clausen and the Local 47 orchestra to “The Simpsons”  500th scoring session with giant golden celebratory balloons adorning the entrance. Alf posed beneath them holding the Certificate of Honor presented to him by Local 47 President Vince Trombetta on behalf of the musicians union. photo by Linda Rapka

‘The Simpsons’ orchestra and Alf Clausen celebrate 500 episodes

by Linda Rapka

“The Simpsons” celebrated a landmark achievement in television history last month, airing its 500th episode Feb. 19.

The momentous scoring session took place Feb. 3 at the Bridge Recording studio in Glendale, which greeted the musicians with giant golden celebratory balloons spelling out “500” on either side of the entrance. Continue reading

A Union-Man’s Man: Tom Morello

Photo by David Atlas. Courtesy of Tom Morello

Taking up the working man’s plight, ‘The Nightwatchman’ sends out an urgent call for action with his new ‘Union Town’ EP

Tom Morello is as well known for his heavy guitar riffs with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Street Sweeper Social Club and his solo acoustic act The Nightwatchman as he is for fervent political activism. Co-founder of the political group Axis of Justice, whose declared purpose is “to bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organizations to fight for social justice together,” Morello has championed causes ranging from immigration reform and ending war to abolishing torture and the death penalty. Inspired by the labor struggles in Wisconsin, his newly released “Union Town” EP aims to invigorate listeners to stand up, get active and fight for the rights of workers, with 100% of proceeds from record sales going directly toward this cause. This interview by Linda Rapka. Continue reading

“Dancing With the Stars”: Classical Week

Jennifer Hudson rehearses two new songs before that evening’s performance.

Co-host Tom Bergeron chats with dancer Kym Johnson as the singers rehearse.

Co-host Tom Bergeron chats with dancer Kym Johnson as the singers rehearse.

Louis van Amstel and Kendra Wilkinson-Baskett get in a great final practice dance.

Louis van Amstel and Kendra Wilkinson-Baskett get in a great final practice dance.

Jennifer Hudson backed by the large orchestra rehearses her numbers as Louis van Amstel awaits his cue to join partner Kendra Wilkinson-Baskett on the dance floor.

Jennifer Hudson backed by the large orchestra rehearses her numbers as Louis van Amstel awaits his cue to join partner Kendra Wilkinson-Baskett on the dance floor.

“Dancing With the Stars” musical director Harold Wheeler leads a swelled 46-piece
orchestra in the final rehearsal April 12 for the specially themed Classical Week.

Lights, camera, action! The lighting crew gets things ready for the big show.

ABC hit series “Dancing With the Stars” added a touch of class in April with the launch of Classical Week.Pushed by the show’s co-executive producer Joe Sungkur, the theme week featured an orchestra doubled to an impressive 46 pieces performing traditional and new classical music. Selections included a Spanish double-step pasodoble and a 200-year-old Viennese waltz as nine celebrity couples competed to outshine one another on the dance floor and save themselves from elimination. Continue reading

The Passion and the Fury of David Axelrod (musician) – interview

Photo by B Plus, courtesy Dana Axelrod.

The Passion and the Fury of David Axelrod

interview by Linda Rapka

A golden producer in the heyday of Capitol Records, David Axelrod lent his magic to hit jazz, funk and soul records of the 1960s and ’70s. He churned out a succession of gold records and top singles with artists including Lou Rawls, Cannonball Adderley and the Electric Prunes, and his signature sound is a sampling favorite of today’s hip hop artists. His keen eye for spotting unlikely successes garnered him a lasting imprint on some of the most eccentric albums of the era. Sailor-mouthed and charmingly surly, Axelrod minces no words about his improbable highs and cavernous lows during six decades in the industry. Continue reading

Master Maestro – Interview with Grant Gershon

September 2010 OvertureGrant Gershon celebrates a decade with the Los Angeles Master Chorale

interview by Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor

That rare breed of a Los Angeles native, Grant Gershon began his long and varied musical journey taking piano lessons at age 5. After graduating from USC, he found success as a pianist and served as assistant conductor and principal pianist with the LA Opera from 1988 to 1994, also garnering a reputation as one of the nation’s exceptional vocal coaches. He was Assistant Conductor of the LA Philharmonic from 1994 to 1997 and served as Music Director of the Idyllwild Arts Festival Chorus from 2003 to 2007. Esteemed by colleagues as “a complete musician” and lauded for championing new music, Maestro Gershon this season continues in his third year as Associate Conductor/Chorus Master of the LA Opera and celebrates his landmark 10th year at the helm of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

How did you come to start piano lessons at such a young age?
It was basically sibling rivalry. I have an older brother and sister and they were both taking piano lessons, and I was jealous.

Your mother was a piano teacher. Did you take lessons from her?
No. She was wise enough to not teach her own kids, and now that I have kids I see the wisdom in that even more strongly!

When did you realize music would become your life’s work and passion?
I can really pinpoint it to the summer after my freshman year of high school. I was at the Idyllwild Summer Music Camp and was singing in the choir that summer. We did a performance of the Mozart ‘Requiem’ and it was incredible. It was life changing in every way. That’s really when I knew that I just had to do this.

You started with the LA Opera as a repetatur. How did that lead to conducting?
I really had no inkling initially that conducting was in the cards. Gradually as I was working at LA Opera I was called upon to do backstage conducting, and from there it started to be conducting rehearsals. But the real shift came in 1992 when I worked with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Salzburg Festival when the LA Philharmonic was in residency there that summer. We worked on an opera by Messiaen and I was again the head coach and pianist. At the end of the summer Esa-Pekka and Ernest Fleischmann took me aside and told me that they felt strongly that I should be pursuing conducting. I was absolutely flabbergasted. They helped me to get into the Aspen seminar for conductors the following summer. One thing led to another and I ended up as assistant conductor at the LA Phil from ’94 to ’97. Everything that I have learned about conducting is from Esa-Pekka. He’s a wonderful mentor.

How did you make the transition from the symphonic world to the choral world?
Choral music in some ways was really my first love, all the way back to this formative experience in high school. I sang in choirs all through college, and it was a really big part of my life. Then I left that behind for piano and then conducting. But while I was working for the Philharmonic in the ’90s I had a couple of opportunities to work with the Master Chorale, and it really felt like a homecoming to work in choral music again. When Paul Salamunovich announced that he was retiring, I started thinking about how interesting this might be. It’s always been a great ensemble, and it was at a very high artistic level at that point when Paul retired. At the same time there was this great energy around the organization. I think they really wanted to be challenged and to take a new direction. It was because of the specific circumstances of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the kind of musician they were interested in for the position that just created for me the perfect situation to go back to my roots in the choral world.

What is it like to work with the Chorale and the LA Opera at the same time?
There’s a fantastic yin and yang to working in the Opera at the same time as you’re working in concert situations. I talk to James Conlon about this a lot because he straddles both worlds so well. One of the differences is for a conductor in a concert situation, you really are in control. There are very few variables compared to conducting in opera, where there’s a million different things that can go wrong. At the same time, there’s so much energy and excitement — at times it borders on hysteria! It’s very stimulating.

Your career has taken quite a varied path. Did you actively seek out these opportunities, or did they find you?
For most musicians, there’s so much serendipity involved. It’s so hard to predict. Certainly with me there was no kind of ‘master plan.’ But I really couldn’t be happier with the way things have played out, now being at the Master Chorale and working with this incredible organization over these 10 years, and being back at LA Opera as well. It’s like a dream come true.

You’re widely lauded as an ardent champion of new music and for bringing eclectic, rather bold programming to the Chorale. What gives you the courage to stray the from traditional repertoire?
I wish I could say that it’s about courage, but it’s really simply programming the music that I love. I’m in this wonderful position where I am able to present to our audiences music that I am excited about and that resonates deeply with me, and it just so happens that ends up being an interesting mix of old and new, and of familiar and unfamiliar.

The Chorale musicians tell me they enjoy and appreciate your being so allowing of them to express their own creativity, more so than other conductors.
I’m glad to hear that. I think my role is to guide to the players and singers simply to express themselves as clearly and as committed as possible within the ensemble.

Do you still play piano?
I try to keep my piano playing up as much as possible. I miss it, I have to say. I love just sitting down at the piano and just going through Beethoven sonatas. It’s such a huge pleasure to actually make music. As a conductor, it’s a different thing to put pedal to metal. I do miss that. I relish the occasional opportunity that I still have to perform as a pianist.

There’s a quote from composer John Adams calling you “one of those rarities musicians call ‘a complete musician.'” What do you say to that?
When I saw that quote, I was just floored, and deeply humbled. Having the opportunity to work with a composer of John’s stature, a composer who we’ll be looking back on years from now, and just to be able to hang out and have a beer and talk life and philosophy, it’s incredible. I feel very, very fortunate.

Every time I’ve seen you on stage, you seem to exude just pure joy. You have a fun rapport with the audience and the musicians.
There’s no place that I would rather be than where I am now with these players and these singers. I think for me also, because I’ve lived most of my life here now in Los Angeles, the players and the singers are friends that go back many years in a lot of cases. They’re not anonymous strangers you’re standing in front of. I’m making music with close, dear friends.

Who were your mentors?
For conducting, Esa-Pekka more so than anybody. For piano I had a number of wonderful teachers over the years. There was one in particular, Jean Barr, who was at USC when I was there. She was the kind of teacher who was not just about the music, but about every aspect of being a performer, from the poetry of it down to what you should wear and eat before a performance, the whole package. I am hugely indebted to her for that kind of wisdom.

You’re married to soprano Elissa Johnston. Do you ever work together?
Once or twice a year we’re in a recital together. Elissa’s been guest soloist with pretty much every organization in town, including the Master Chorale. One of my most enjoyable gigs in recent years was with City Ballet in New York. Elissa was hired to sing a set of Strauss songs with orchestra, and they asked her who she would recommend to conduct. And luckily she recommended me! That was one of those great situations that happens now from time to time where I’m simple the soprano’s husband, and I love that.

Did you ever have any other aspirations other than music?
I’ve had lots of other interests over the years, but I always knew that my life would be full with music. And of course now with music and family as well. We have two kids; Claire is 11 and Samuel is 8.

With all the work you do with so the Chorale and LA Opera, what do you find time for when you’re not working?
Next week we’re going to be off the grid for a week up in the high Sierras for a camping trip. To me, anytime we have a chance to go on vacation, it’s almost always out into the wilderness rather than to a city. Paris is nice, but that’s for gigging.

That’s almost depressing — to think of all these great cities as being “work.”
I definitely fit in some fun in those cities! But I find that in this profession, for me the most satisfying break is to be out in nature.

It’s been 10 years with the Chorale. Does it feel like it’s been a decade?
It’s gone by in some ways so fast, but at the same time when I look back on all of the music that we’ve performed and all the great things that have happened with the organization, it feels like the 10 years have been very full of activity.

What are you looking forward most to in the upcoming season?
Every concert that we’re doing at Disney Hall this year really feels like an event. Of course opening with the Rachmaninoff “All-Night Vigil,” which is one of my all-time favorite pieces. I look forward to the spring doing Haydn’s “Creations” with full orchestra and soloists; this work to me is one of the all-time high points in chorale music. And to have this premiere with composer Mark Grey and (violinist) Jennifer Koh, there’s just so much great music coming out. And of course the other thing for us is the opportunity to work with the Philharmonic and work with Gustavo Dudamel. It’s just pure, pure joy.

It seems like you and Dudamel are paralleled with your passion for new music and the expansion of traditional repertoire.
I think that the Philharmonic and the Master Chorale are really nicely aligned these days. We definitely share a world view about music, and we also share terrifically eager and adventurous audiences. When I talk to my colleagues around the country there’s so much fantastic envy when people look at Los Angeles and see not only what we’re doing, but see the audience response is to what we’re doing. There’s something really special going on in the city right now.

What is it like for you to be playing a role in shaping this special period in Los Angeles’ artistic history?
It really is great. At the same time I feel like we really can’t ever take anything for granted. I don’t want people to look back 30 years from now and say, ‘Oh yeah, that was a nice little golden era that lasted for a few years there.’ This is something that we want to sustain for as long as we’re all around making music.

Musicians of the L.A. Master Chorale Sound Off on 10 Years With Gershon

“The truth is that everyone really loves Grant,” said oboist Joel Timm, echoing a sentiment shared by many musicians of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Praised for bringing eclectic new programming to the traditional chorale repertoire, Gershon is widely praised by the musicians for his unique conducting style, his musicianship, and the level of respect with which he treats them.

“He is generous to a fault,” said baritone Scott Graff, who came to the Chorale during Gershon’s first season. “He’s delightful to work for, and he’s delightful to work with. You get the very strong impression from the podium when he’s on it that he is aware that as a conductor he makes no sound, is and is completely reliant on the people on stage to make that sound. He inspires a lot of loyalty in the folks he works with.”

Principal percussionist Theresa Dimond first met Gershon at USC. With careers paralleling each other, they worked together at the LA Opera in the late 1980s, and she belonged to both the Chorale and the LA Opera orchestras when he came on board. “His demeanor has not changed much since we were college students together,” Dimond said. “Music was always sort of a cooperative thing with him, and still is. He trusts the musicians to bring a certain voice to the project, and he honors that voice. It’s more of a partnership rather than a czarship. There are a lot of untrusting conductors that don’t trust you’ll rise to the occasion if need be. There’s never a time where Grant doesn’t trust his musicians to do what they need to do.”

Known as an ardent champion of new music, Gershon has led the Chorale in numerous world premiere performances as well as in lesser-known choral works. “The programming is a really strong point,” said Timm, who has played oboe with the LAMC for 22 years. “It really breathes life and validates the whole genre of chorales. For the most part, a lot of chorales play and sing a basic handful of major pieces written for orchestra and chorus. He has totally expanded that whole genre. Audiences have really responded.”
“Grant has changed the face of the Chorale in terms of what kind of literature they sing,” said Steve Scharf, violinist and LAMC orchestra contractor since the Salamunovich years. “They do a lot more modern works, which he is fairly well known for. He’s exemplary in conducting those kinds of things and the choir sounds fabulous.”

“Grant definitely has upped the ante with the new music,” said concertmaster Ralph Morrison. “It’s nice to do things that are new. It is scarier that way; until you play the first note you don’t know what’s gonna be going on around you. But it’s fun to do. We’re not doing the same thing you’ve done a million times before.”

“I think some of the choruses in the U.S. tend to get into programming ruts,” Dimond said. “While it’s wonderful to do ‘Carmina Burana’ once in a while, it’s fun to do commissions and 20th century pieces. The choir has become much more adept and well-rounded because of his programming. It’s really fun to be challenged.”

“I really feel Grant brought us into the 21st century,” said alto Amy Fogerson, who has been with the LAMC for 24 years. “Grant is bright and more modern which is conducive and appropriate for contemporary music, which we’re doing a lot of now.”

“He came to conducting through the symphonic model,” Graff said. “Grant doesn’t have the usual bag of choral conductor tricks. By skipping that step he doesn’t really look at it as having to fit into this particular model or mode.”

Gershon is known for treating his musicians with genuine respect. “I don’t think he likes the distinction between musician and singer,” Graff said. “He likes to call singers musicians, and he likes to treat us as musicians, and we tend to respond to that call.”

“Oftentimes when we’re doing a piece, Grant has his hands full with the choir, so players in leadership roles in the orchestra will offer suggestions to make the performance into a better situation, and he receives those extremely well,” Scharf said. “He’s not controlling. But he is demanding. He does let the singers and musicians know what he thinks is not right and gives them direction, but he doesn’t force them into anything, and they appreciate that very much.”

Gershon’s talents as music director often shine through when guiding the musicians through a particularly difficult piece. “He is an unbelievable musician,” Fogerson said. “He can look at any score and understand what’s going on with it pretty much immediately! He can take the hardest, most intimidating piece and take us through it in a way that makes it accessible and understandable to us.”

“One of his rare gifts is that he’s able to take what is obscure and seemingly impenetrable and translate it for us who might be reading the dotted 30-second notes and the meter changes with multi-tritone changes and want to run away,” Graff said. “He’s got great interpretive skill in that regard and really knows how to make something not only we can interpret, but can also really enjoy and make music out of.”

“He’s so clear and so easy to follow and such a calming presence on the podium,” Morrison said. “He has a clear idea what he wants and so clear on giving it especially in difficult music things happening all over the place. We did an interesting piece with four of the singers last summer It was as a very, very difficult piece. At first I hated it and was saying, ‘Why did I agree to do this project?’ But by the time we got to the performance I was starting to like that piece. Everyone sent e-mails back and forth saying what a great experience we’d just had. We could never have done that without Grant out there.”

Now with 10 years under his belt at LAMC, Gershon continues in his pursuit of eclectic programming and continues to inspire, both on and off the podium.

“To watch the development of the ensemble and him as a conductor and our place in the pantheon of Los Angeles arts organizations has been pretty exciting,” Graff said. It wouldn’t have happened in the same way without Grant’s leadership.”

Hangin’ With the Preppies

LA Phil librarians Kazue McGregor, Kenneth Bonebrake and Stephen Biagini show Overture managing editor Linda Rapka the library's oldest score, Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus," which dates back to about 1820.

Up Close and Personal With the People of Music Prep

by Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor

“In kindergarten, everybody had to write what they wanted to be when they grew up,” said Kazue McGregor. “There were all these nurses and flight attendants, but then there was mine: Female Investigator.”

As head music librarian of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, McGregor is essentially living her childhood dream. Librarians can accurately be described as music cryptologists, having to decode and reconstruct pieces of music into forms that translate into easily legible formats. The job requires an intense interest in the pursuit of accuracy, a high level of curiosity, and a flair for recognizing and decoding idiosyncratic notations in historical works.

“If you’re not curious about music, you’re not going to have the drive to look in scores, in different editions, know the publisher and their idiosyncrasies, know the composers, know the theory, and just dive into it,” said Steve Biagini, who does library work for the LA Phil and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. “Sometimes we’ll spend hours and hours looking at one little issue. And most of the time there’s a reason for it. Back when we were all in college studying music theory and music history thinking, ‘I’m never gonna use this’ — we use it!”

Orchestrators also use similar skill sets. Hollywood orchestrator and composer Pete Anthony, whose recent projects include “Alice in Wonderland,” “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” describes his role as orchestrator in terms of architecture. “An architect draws a sketch of a building, and I provide the actual construction diagram,” he said. “All the details, the sizes of the nuts and bolts, so that it can actually be built, or so the music can actually be played by a real person.”

Bob Bockholt is an all-around music prep man: music librarian, orchestrator, composer and arranger. He used to be librarian at Warner Bros. and has spent the past several years working with the New West Symphony. Though he used to play trumpet, he got into the music prep side of the biz because it was easier to write arrangements correctly than to try to find them.

Kris Mettala, timpanist and librarian of the Riverside County Philharmonic, has a similar story of how he got into the career. “I just kept finding problems with music prep, so I said ‘Let me do the job’ so I could make sure that things were right,” he said. “I also figured out that if you do more jobs, you get more money, so I could get paid more for being a librarian and a performer for the same weekend.”

The score above left, with more markings than notes, shows the extensive corrections copyists make to an individual piece of music. At right, an old Mozart score displays an archaic form of notation, where the dots of the dotted half-notes drift to the right.

What Do They Do?

Though the purpose of music prep — getting printed music in front of musicians in as clear, concise and organized a manner as possible — is pretty well known, not many people, and in fact not many musicians, are entirely sure of all the nuances the process actually entails.

“I had no idea what it was,” said Marty Fenton-Frear, librarian of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. “I thought I would be bowing music and correcting bowings. I had no idea we would correct all the page turns, or fix so many things so musicians could just read them and not spend rehearsal time on them. A good music librarian erases bad rehearsal time for an orchestra. And Los Angeles musicians aren’t gonna screw up. If it’s right on the page, they’re not going to waste any rehearsal time.”

Orchestra librarians also provide scores, guidance and stage plots to many people in production, such as the stage crew and house manager, as well as alert management far in advance as to the instrumentation requirements for pieces so they can decide if any extra players need to be hired. The librarians also work to serve the music director. “Conductors want to make sure that what’s in front of the musicians are their messages to them,” McGregor said.

With the advent of copy machines and music notation software, the process of music copying has changed drastically in the past several decades. “Thirty years ago, they would have to correct on the page as best they could and go with whatever was printed,” said LA Phil librarian Kenneth Bonebrake. “They wouldn’t have been able to take the time to do this,” pointing to a score with extensive correction marks and notations, ready to be finalized on the computer.

“The danger in that is now everybody who owns a computer and/or a synthesizer is either a composer or arranger or does music prep,” Bockholt said. “It’s not as simple as that, just inputting parts. I get so many sets of orchestral parts from new composers that are virtually unplayable because of how they’re laid out on the page.” During his time at Warner Bros., he described an incident where the copying was not done up to par. “I went to one of the sessions for a movie recording, and the band actually refused to play it because it was so bad,” he said. “They reformatted the parts on the computer.”

However, such problems are rare and tend to lie not in the technology, but in the know-how of the person using it. “It’s all garbage in, garbage out,” Fenton-Frear said. “Who did it, and if they were sensitive to how it was done when it was printed.”

Copyists not only must transcribe the music for each instrument’s part, but also ensure things such as page turns are easy and come in at the right time for that particular instrument. “My general rule has been to give as many helps as possible,” Mettala said. “It’s easier for them to ignore something they don’t need than to not get something that they absolutely have to have.”

Conducting from possibly the world's largest score, Esa-Pekka Salonen had to use a customized music stand to accommodate the enormous three-foot pages of Gérard Grisey's "L'icône Paradoxale."

Where Does the Music Come From?

Music for film is typically commissioned for a composer, which is then orchestrated and translated onto paper for use by the recording musicians. Some composers, like Pete Anthony, double as orchestrators. Though he sometimes orchestrates his own works, Anthony prefers to employ an orchestrator. “It’s very tedious!” he said. “When I orchestrate another composer’s work, I’m discovering this music for the first time. If I’ve been the composer, I’ve already discovered the music. The mechanics of getting it on paper is not the fun part for me.” When orchestrating, he explains, “A lot of times our job is really just about accurately transcribing what a composer has played, but there are some who invite me to add my own ideas or play with an idea they have.”

Orchestral music librarians work mainly with classical scores, of which there are two types: public domain, and those under copyright. “All the stuff we have here is public domain,” Bonebrake said. “Things like Beethoven, we have sets and we just pull it out. But at least 50 percent of what we do comes in on rental. We pay the rental fee, the music comes here, we put our own markings in, then the music goes back to the publisher.”

It is typical for a major orchestra to have the library on site and employ a full-time librarian. But this wasn’t always the case.

“In the ’60s most major orchestras had only one librarian, and small orchestras didn’t have any,” Bonebrake said. “It was just a volunteer position. Orchestras that don’t have as many services, small regional orchestras, will often have a playing librarian. But in a place like this, there’s so many services, to do both would be really tough.”

The LA Phil has three full-time music librarians and one Hollywood Bowl Orchestra librarian during the venue’s active summer months. “Ernest (Fleischmann, former president and CEO of the LA Philharmonic Association) was the one who fought for a librarian when most other orchestras didn’t even think of it as a separate musician position,” McGregor said. They enjoy union representation as  members Local 47 and also belong the Major Orchestra Librarians Association, which contains an AFM committee.

“European orchestras often don’t have a full-time dedicated librarian even now,” McGregor said. “I think the level of awareness and the level of standards (here) have risen. Conductors come knowing that we don’t have 10 rehearsals a concert as some European orchestras do. We can’t waste time.”

Pencils, Who Needs ’em! … Right?

While things have gone the way of the computer, with notation programs like Sibelius and Finale, it is still important to know how to hand-write a score. As a teacher of orchestration and conducting at USC, Anthony stresses to his students that they can’t rely solely on their computers. “A lot of these kids have never picked up a pencil in their life,” he said. “They couldn’t write a hand score if they had to. I tell them, what if you get a job and someone says, ‘Here, fix this,’ and you don’t have the computer with you? You’ve got a pencil, and here’s your big break, but unfortunately there’s no power. Whatever tool you’ve got available, that’s what you use.”

At the LA Phil, there are plenty of horror stories which could have ended up disastrous rather than as funny anecdotes if not for Bonebrake and Biagini’s knowledge of hand-scoring. Bonebrake described how during one performance, “halfway through the intermission, during the last 10 minutes, a player came up to me and said, ‘I totally forgot, during the rehearsal this morning Esa-Pekka said he wanted this line played by my instrument.'” With no time to even boot up his computer, he used a skinny felt-tip pen and transposed the part in a few frenzied minutes.

McGregor reveals examples of the extensive notation librarians make to the music for each instrument, as with "City Noir," an LA Phil-commissioned work by composer John Adams.

Time Crunch!

The biggest challenge faced by anyone in the music prep world is unanimous.

“Deadlines, always,” Bockholt said. “You give somebody a guarantee that you’ll have it done by the 15th, and all of a sudden they move the recording date up to the 10th and don’t understand why you’re complaining about it. Which is fine if that’s the only project you’re working on, but not when you have four or five things going on at the same time.”

The film world is notorious for pushing deadlines to the extreme, especially in the current climate. “We used to spend four to six weeks orchestrating and copying a picture,” Anthony said. “Now, routinely we do the whole thing in one to two weeks. The hours it takes to get the job done haven’t changed much, but the hours available to get it done are much reduced, which is why you must have a bunch of people working at the same time to get it done. Two guys work 10 hours each, as opposed to one guy working for the full 20 hours.”

Anthony explains the reasons for this with two words: “Digital editing. The digital editing of moving pictures has allowed them to never lock their pictures. They’re always making changes. In order not to spend too much money revising everything, there’s a tendency for composers to wait and wait, and then they let go a bunch of music toward the very end.”

Nip/Tuck: The Challenges of Downsizing

One of the major problems across the board is downsizing and cutting costs. While this has been an increasing trend for the past two decades, it’s especially hard hitting in the current economic climate.

“They’re cutting the orchestras smaller, so they’re wanting to do pieces that require fewer instruments,” Mettala said. “Unfortunately nowadays you’ll have programs at the end of the year and they will decide they can’t afford to do that expensive rental piece.” Fenton-Frear agrees: “It’s going to cut into the creativity of conductors and concert planners if they can’t afford to hire all the music prep people to put on the amazing shows. That’s really sad to me.”

Hollywood is no less prone to cutbacks. “It’s not just the music that’s getting squeezed,” Anthony said, “it’s everybody involved in every aspect of production is learning how to make due with less in terms of money available to produce, whether it’s music or special effects or hiring the crew on shooting days.”

Why Choose a Career in Music Prep?

Shelves upon shelves are lined with classical scores in the LA Phil music library.

Though life in the music prep world is tedious, arduous and stress inducing, it’s also enormously gratifying.

“Music is so much more complex as far as all the various possible problems: transposing instruments, notes, phrasing, dynamics,” Bonebrake said. “As a musician, you tend to think of the music as sacred. Beethoven’s symphonies, Stravinsky, it should all be just perfect. But there are all kinds of problems. So if the rehearsal goes through and the only reason they’re stopping is for artistic reasons, then we know we’ve done our job.”

“It’s really hard when it’s a really huge job and they make a huge change, or cancel it,” Fenton-Frear said. “But if we’ve delivered a job on time and it doesn’t come back, no matter how many hours it took, it feels good because we got the job done.”

“The end result is that sense of satisfaction that you’ve aided and helped in a successful performance,” McGregor said. “That to me is the real high: hearing that beautiful music.”

The LA Philharmonic boasts one of the largest libraries of orchestral music in the world. Unlike some librarians confined to working in a basement, the librarians of the LA Phil spend their working hours at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a sunlit office specially designed to their own set of specifications by architect Frank Gehry. Shelving units filled to the brim with music books line the walls from floor to ceiling, and a massive rolling filing cabinet stands impressively in the center of the room. Amidst giant photocopying machines and several computer stations, about a dozen standing-height tables (also Gehry-designed) are scattered throughout the space, the tops of each impossibly buried under mountains of music. Says Kazue McGregor: “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”


THE HORROR!
When Good Jobs go Wrong: Horror Stories from the Frontlines of Music Prep

Marty Fenton-Frear: “There were a few years when we would spend hours, literally 30 or 40 hours, putting just one of those five-minute segments together (for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra). The phone would ring and they would cancel the one we had just finished. There was one year that happened two or three times in the same week!”

Bob Bockholt: “Six years ago I was in a car crash and I missed a deadline for a major CD recording and had to farm out at the last minute,” Bob said. “From the hospital bed, nonetheless!”

Kris Mettala: “Sometimes they’ll give you a name that’s slightly inaccurate. Say you’re doing a piece from ‘Oklahoma!’ and there will be several pieces with similar names. If the conductor is just one that doesn’t like to deal with minutiae, they’ll say, “Oh, give me that ‘Oklahoma! Overture.’ Well, they don’t actually mean that, but you get the title that they called for. Then they look at you like you’re stupid.”

Kazue McGregor: “”We had morning rehearsal, and a musician accidentally picked up the Eb clarinet part we were rehearsing earlier which had the same bright yellow cover. Here comes the matinee, and when we came to the 10-minute intermission, the Eb clarinetist walked out to us and said, ‘My part is not there!’ That was a case where it had to be done so fast, I’m not even sure if we would have had time to even set up anything on the computer, so it had to be hand written on the spot.”

Kenneth Bonebrake: “Music falls down between the slots of the stage. At the Dorothy Chandler there were two pieces that dropped down, and they said, ‘Well, you can get it in June when we tear down the stage.’ There was no way to get to that spot. And sometime in June, we got those parts back.”

Marty Fenton-Frear: “In the first couple of years at the Bowl, we did the musical ‘Peter Pan,’ and every page of the original music was so old and mildewed, I had to cut out everything that wasn’t music and paste music back on paper and make a copy of it so that it was legible. I was like a kindergartner with paste and scissors, cutting out awful nasty blotches on the page. And ‘Peter Pan,’ we did it once! We’ve never done it again.”

Originally published in Local 47 Overture, March 2010 issue

¡Bienvenido Gustavo! LA Philharmonic Musicians Welcome New Music Director Gustavo Dudamel


Gustavo Dudamel photo by Sylvia Lleli. All photos courtesy of LA Philharmonic

Glad All Over

The musicians of the LA Philharmonic agree: Gustavo Dudamel lives up to the hype. And they couldn’t be happier.

By Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor

“I’ve never been to a classical show before,” I overheard a young woman say during the live simulcast of Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural performance with the LA Philharmonic. Her eyes, like everyone else’s, were transfixed on the hypnotic girations of the young conductor as his image danced across the multiple TV screens throughout the Music Center Plaza. “This is pretty cool.”

This seems to be the consensus among the musicians of the LA Philharmonic about their new music director as well. The exuberant 28-year-old conductor from Venezuela, now at the helm of one of the most revered orchestras in the world, has stirred the entire city into a frenzy of unparalleled excitement. And not just in the classical world. People all over the city, from all walks of life, are taking an unprecedented interest in the phenomenon that is Gustavo.

Beyond the Hype

Much credit must go to the LA Phil marketing department for capitalizing on Dudamel’s rock-star-like ability to capture the public’s interest. But the buzz doesn’t end with the marketing machine.

“They’re not manufacturing interest,” said Dennis Trembly, principal bassist who has been with the LA Philharmonic since 1970. “They’re not hyping a mediocre commodity. He’s the real deal, so he’s easy to sell. The marketing people get the attention of the general public who never otherwise cared about the Philharmonic, but once they’ve got that attention, if Dudamel wasn’t justifying the raves, people would immediately lose interest. Once they’re exposed to him, the response and the enthusiasm is genuine on the public’s part.”

“I think from the audience point of view he’s probably a lot of fun just to watch,” said Barry Gold, a cellist with the orchestra for the past 27 seasons. “He’s very active on the podium. My wife often says when he’s conducting it’s like he’s dancing salsa or something. The sounds just permeate his body, it resonates his whole being, so he’s moving to the music. He’s just so full of enthusiasm, and when you combine that with this great ability that he has, it’s really unique.”

“I think we’re riding a tidal wave of a lot of media right now,” said personnel manager Jeff Neville, who also sometimes performs trombone with the orchestra. “But there’s a lot there to back it up, because if there wasn’t that would fizzle out really fast in this business. It’s just growing. The fact that with his background, coming out of the El Sistema program in Venezuela, and that he started to conduct an orchestra down there at age 15, I think the development and the mentors that he’s had in that program really got to him because of his down-to-earth personality. There’s this humbleness that he has. I can’t think of another 28-year-old person who would be music director of a world-class orchestra.”

Who is This Guy?

Having begun his conducting career at age 15, Dudamel honed his skills, while still a teenager, as conductor of his native Venezuela’s Simón Bolivar National Youth Orchestra. He made his U.S. conducting debut with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl in September 2005, and in April 2007, during a guest conducting engagement with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Dudamel was named the LA Phil’s next music director. In September he succeeded Esa-Pekka Salonen in the 2009-2010 season, conducting two unprecedented inaugural concerts with the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and Walt Disney Concert Hall in October.

Now in its 91st season, the LA Philharmonic has seen its fair share of music conductors. Walter Henry Rothwell became the symphony’s first music director in 1919, followed by 10 more renowned conductors serving at the helm of what has become recognized as one of the world’s foremost orchestras. And while the Los Angeles Philharmonic has long been regarded as one of the most contemporary and innovative orchestras in the world, the arrival of Dudamel has, in no uncertain terms, given the orchestra an added measure of repute.

“It’s one thing to hear the buzz about a conductor beforehand, and in our line of work we tend to distrust that,” said clarinetist David Howard who’s played with the orchestra for 28 years. “But the actual experience with Gustavo is magnificent. When I meet people who find out what I do for a living, they say, ‘Oh, that must be wonderful.’ And yeah, it is wonderful… but this is wonderful.”

A Touch of Apprehension…

Despite the bravado about Dudamel, replacing Salonen, who led the orchestra for 17 seasons, naturally caused some level of uncertainty for the orchestra — especially with contract negotiations taking place at the same time, having been completed just last month.

“Obviously when you change music directors there’s always a little apprehension because we have a new boss on the podium,” Neville said. “They’ve been used to Esa-Pekka for the last 17 years and they knew what to expect from him, and now all of a sudden we have a new boss, and this boss does not have a track record behind him. So it’s kind of like they’re out setting new breaking ground.

“All the musicians were very nervous because of the economic environment that we’re all experiencing at this particular time,” Neville continued. “But riding the wave of the expectation of Gustavo over the last couple of years has really generated, economically, a positive force for this orchestra.”

How They Got Him

The move to get Dudamel to Los Angeles happened largely under wraps. It was so secretive that only a few members of the orchestra even knew the search for a new music conductor was on.

“It wasn’t publicized that we were in this search because Esa-Pekka hadn’t announced that he was leaving,” Neville said. “Esa-Pekka was committed to making sure that this orchestra was handed over to the right person, so a lot of things happened underneath the surface. There were members of the orchestra too that didn’t necessarily know this was going on. It was basically handled on the committee level.”

The orchestra’s Artistic Liaison Committee, made up of elected orchestra members, played a key role in the push for the organization to snatch up Dudamel as quickly as possible.

“In the search process in trying to get Gustavo here, the musicians worked with Deborah (Borda, LA Philharmonic President/CEO) and management and the board in bringing him here,” Neville said. “The musicians were a very important part of that, because Gustavo didn’t want to come to a place where he was not necessarily welcomed or did not have the input from the players. In some orchestras, all of a sudden an announcement is made, ‘This is our new music director,’ and the musicians really haven’t had the input that they should have.”

“Gustavo’s ratings were so extraordinarily unanimous and enthusiastic that neither Deborah nor the committee had to convince each other that they’d better take this seriously and act fast to acquire this person,” Trembly said.

“The fact that we collectively, the management as well as the orchestra, found Gustavo and literally watched his meteor rise over these last several years, and the fact that we moved ahead as quickly as we did to pursue him and woo him and get him to come here, has been very exciting for us,” Neville said.

Pasión

The enthusiasm surrounding Dudamel goes beyond just what’s generated by the media. Every member of the orchestra we spoke with expressed having experienced a palpable energy they say emanates from within the young conductor.

“You can’t ignore it,” Trembly said. “It radiates toward you. He enfolds you with his energy. It’s almost an intoxication.”

“He wants 100 percent from people all the time,” Neville said. “He’s driving himself along those lines but he also expects the response from the orchestra as well.”

“It’s very inspirational,” Gold said. “We want to go to that place that he’s trying to take us. With him it feels so collaborative. With every conductor we try and do our best to focus in on their directions and where they want the orchestra to go musically, but with Gustavo, he’s coming from such a unique place that’s full of energy, and love of course. Every note has to have this… meaning.”

The saying “you give what you get” plays out in a very real way in the symphonic world. When the stars align just right, what a music director puts out will come back from the orchestra. In Dudamel’s case, it’s working.

“His enthusiasm is the overriding quality of him,” Trembly said. “It’s genuine, sincere, intense enthusiasm, and that’s wonderful to be around. He loves music and what music can do for people, and he loves people.”

This love of people is real; Gustavo regularly hugs the musicians during rehearsals. His personality fits right in with the positive atmosphere the orchestra members have enjoyed for years.

“You really sense from your colleagues that they are giving for Gustavo 150 percent,” Gold said. “And the camaraderie offstage has always been there. It’s a very friendly orchestra to be in from my perspective. When Gustavo’s offstage he’s very friendly, extremely approachable, he doesn’t go off and function in his ivory tower. He likes to be there for us.”

So Happy Together

A music director’s dynamic with the orchestra is a crucial part of the overall organization’s success. So far, the musicians of the LA Philharmonic don’t seem to have any complaints about Gustavo.

“What most people look for in a conductor is clarity in ideas and the technique to describe what he wants to the orchestra,” said first violinist Mitch Newman, who’s been with the LA Phil since 1987. “And not to only communicate that verbally, but with their gestures and body. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with the baton, but with something that lets the orchestra know exactly what the conductor wants. Gustavo does very, very well with that. He works very hard when he’s there. He’s completely involved in what he’s doing.”

“With Esa-Pekka it was all about clarity and the proper balances,” Gold said. “With Gustavo, that’s an important ingredient, but he takes that mixture and tries to throw in a little bit more seasoning that he has being Latin. There’s more of a hot-blooded feeling. He’s going for a different type of sound. And being a string player himself, he really lets us play. Even in the softest dynamic, he’s constantly saying, ‘Play forte with the left hand, but pianissimo with the bow.’ So the intensity of the sound is always there.”

“He’s definitely after a certain sound depending on what piece he’s working on,” Neville said. “He really works on it until he gets the sound that he wants, and if one way he’s trying to explain what he wants doesn’t necessarily work he finds another way. It’s not a demanding way from him to the musicians; it’s a very ‘work with me on this’ approach. Because he asks things in a very down to earth, one-on-one basis, he gets a wonderful response from the players. The musicians want to work with somebody like that, and it’s enjoyable because they obviously want to play the best they can.”

“To Gustavo, music means more to him than just an art form,” Newman said. “It’s a way of communicating. And he’s a great communicator. I don’t think to him it matters what kind of music it is, as long as he’s able to bring something to life and have a group of people, like an orchestra, touch another group of people.”

“In this day and age, a music director really has to be more than just a person on a podium, he has to be a personality in the community,” said John Lofton, who was appointed bass trombonist two seasons ago. “Dudamel is in a situation where he has much of the charisma and desire to really connect with people. He really wants to be considered ‘one of us,’ the musicians, and really work with us to make really good music. And he does seem to have this desire to be a part of the community, to reach out and help young people experience some of the joy that he experiences in the music business. Something about that really transcends across the stage and to the actual people. That’s what he’s really been very effective at; bridging that perceived gap.”

“In these troubled financial times for the nation, for our orchestra in this troubled profession right now to be at such a solid footing, financially, artistically, and in the community, and having this wonderful concert hall to work in, the stars are all aligned,” Trembly said. “All the factors are positive for us. We’re very, very fortunate.”

Published in the November 2009 issue of the Overture, official publication of Professional Musicians, Local 47.