Back to Rydell High

beck

Great to see phenomenal  writer and performer Beck (pictured above with my all time musical hero Prince) getting his Grammy last week. Cheers for all the free promo, Kanye.

When I came up with the title of this blog I¬†specifically¬†included¬†“amateur” in the title.¬† I didn’t want my dilettante dabblings to be in any way confused with the endeavour of people who have taken the risky¬†and honorable¬†choice of ¬†earning their living¬†in the Arts, the Music Industry¬†or Show Business¬†(three subtly different fields¬†each with subtly different attitudes and approaches to music making).¬† However, I have skirted round the edges of these professions throughout my life and have had the privilege of working and performing with many different individuals who do indeed call it their life’s work.

One of my most interesting and sustained periods of professional music work was back in 2001 when I found myself working as a trombone player on board the cruise ship MS Westerdam for a 6 month stint.  This is the first in an occasional series of essays on my musical experiences on board ship and covers my first week aboard.

 

So it was January 2001 and ¬†I found myself staring up at the massive Holland America cruise liner, MS Westerdam in the Florida port of Fort Lauderdale.¬† After my job had collapsed a few months earlier I had, on a suggestion and a whim, auditioned for a cruise line musician‚Äôs job.¬† I now stood on the other side of the world, 2 trombones and 2 suitcases in tow, looking at my home for the next 6 months ‚Äď and my first performance on board in a matter of hours.

I had never even seen a cruise ship, let alone been on one, so there was an extremely steep learning curve to be had.¬† Although I only did 6 months, the stories I could tell could easily fill a book ‚Äď however¬† many would be highly inappropriate and probably libelous!¬† Thus, I intend to concentrate on my performing experiences.

There were many musicians aboard the Westerdam.¬† Most came aboard as bands that played background music in the many bars and lounges on board the ship, a jazz trio in the cocktail bar, a string group in the lounge, a steel band on deck etc.¬† I was on board as part of the show band, based in the 1000 seater theatre.¬† The show band¬†musicians all audition as individuals and were a rolling group of players who were¬†picked particularly for their sight-reading ability since their job was to accompany the ever-changing roster of live performers. ¬†The live acts would differ from cruise to cruise and would perform one of the live shows – ¬†generally a 50 minute show performed twice with a short break between performances –¬†every night aboard the ship. ¬†Half the passengers would be dining formally whilst the 1st show was on and would then swap round for the 2nd sitting.¬† On board the Westerdam we had a show band of 7 musicians consisting of piano/MD, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet, reed and trombone.¬† Guest performers would come aboard with music charts arranged for this lineup.

The majority of the cruises during my first 3 months on board ship were 8 night cruises in the Eastern Caribbean.¬† The 8 days included visits to Nassau in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, St Thomas, St Maarten, Half Moon Quay ‚Äď an uninhabited island in the Bahamas¬†– and 2 days at sea.¬† An 8 night cruise meant 8 different shows. My first week’s¬†cruise included 3 shows featuring our on-board cast of singers and dancers, a variety show featuring performers from the week‚Äôs cruise, a magic show which the band weren‚Äôt required for, and 3 more shows featuring the guest artists below.

What I didn’t know until I arrived that first day was that the ship was currently in the middle of a series of Rock and Roll nostalgia cruises featuring artists from the 50’s and 60’s.  Also on board each week were a number of TV stars from the same era, who would do talks and chat to the passengers throughout the week.  In fact, the very first fellow mariner I met was in my taxi from the hotel to the ship.  It was very pleasant gentleman who it turns out had played the little boy in the Lassie TV series.  It’s fair to say I didn’t recognize him Рonly because he had grown a moustache since his tv days.

Musically, the Rock and Roll cruises meant that show band got to perform with a large number of rock and pop acts¬†who had hits in the US in the 50s and 60s. As I had come from the UK and was not born until the 1970s, I have to admit that I hadn’t necessarily heard of all these acts but I certainly recognized many of the songs and it was a joy to meet these performers and hear their stories (again, many unrepeatable!)

The 3 acts in my first week really did set the bar high for the rest of the tour.¬† First up….

 

The Crystals

The Crystals were one of the original girl groups of the 60s, produced by Phil Spector, and famous for hits such as “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me”.¬† They had a number of different lineups and, to be fair, by the time I got play for them there was only one original member –¬†the lovely Dee Dee Kenniebrew.¬† It’s very possible that the performance above featured the arrangements that we used on the ship¬† with one important difference – I had to make up the trombone parts for that first show.¬† Somehow, the trombone parts hadn’t been brought on board. So much for being employed for my sight reading ability!¬† Luckily my skills extended to transposition so I was able to make up a trombone part based on reading the Bb trumpet part of trumpeter and new room mate Marshall who sat next to me on the band stand.

Whilst I could cope with making up rock and roll trombone parts on the spot for the Crystals, I was completely out of my depth when required to play with the rest of the band as background music for Captain’s cocktails.¬† This was a jazz set using numbers from “The Real Book” –¬†a massive volume of¬† standards used by jazz musicians consisting of nothing more than handwritten melodies and chord symbols.¬† As well as being totally unable to improvise credibly around a jazz tune, I was also completely unprepared for the way a¬†musical number – complete¬†with an intro, head (main tune), improvised section and finish – could seemingly be conjured up instantly from these scant materials with no prior preparation or discussion.¬† I had minimal knowledge of most of the tunes picked and certainly no real idea of the conventions and playing styles even for the notes that I was presented with.¬† All in all, it was¬†a very long¬†scary half hour standing on a stage.¬† So much for being employed for my sight reading ability!¬† After that first week I tended to duck out of Captains Cocktails and over the course of my time on the ship my fellow band members took upon themselves to educate me in all things jazz.¬† They would frog march me to various jazz bars in the ports where ship musicians were encouraged to perform and make me practice my improvisions on the unsuspecting drinkers. I would get informal lessons on the history of the art form, the different styles, suggested recordings etc.¬† I went from a novice to a genuine aficionado of probably America’s greatest original art form, and whilst my improv skills are still fairly ropey, I can now fake it for short bursts at least!

 

Frankie Ford

Frankie Ford was a larger than life rock n roll singer and pianist in the mould of Jerry Lee Lewis.¬† He had a huge voice, Elvis hair and sunglasses and piano keyboard scarf.¬† His party trick during performance was to fill the room with his vocals just as easily without the microphone as with it.¬† His big hit was a song called “Sea Cruise”, so the ship was a natural place for him to end up.

“I don’t like rehearsals”.¬† This was pretty much the first thing Frankie said to us during our morning rehearsal slot – our one chance to every day to prepare for the night’s show.¬† And true to his word, he worked with us for about 30 minutes in preparation for the 50 minute show.¬† This certainly gave the show an edge, which nearly backfired when some of Frankie’s vocals didn’t quite match what was in our parts causing a collective mild panic in the band, thankfully invisible and inaudible to the audience.¬†¬†So much for¬†sight reading!¬† The clip below made me smile, as Frankie used exactly the same introductory spiel when I played for him – memories!

 

Bobby Rydell

The biggest show of the week came courtesy of 50s and 60s teen idol Bobby Rydell.¬† By ‘Big’ I mean that the band was significantly augmented for this show.¬† As well as usual¬†the 7 of us, we also had 4 extra horn players (2 trumpets, 2 saxes) on board with us all week who had been drafted in just to play for this show.¬† These guys were all Florida session players who regularly played for the Disney shows and Kool & the Gang amongst others and we had great time getting to know them throughout the week.

Like Frankie, Bobby didn’t like rehearsals either.¬† However this time Bobby’s MD and drummer, David¬†(our drummer, Alain, got the night off) drilled us extremely¬†thoroughly earlier in the day.¬† I’m pretty sure it’s David directing the band from ¬†behind the drums in the clip below.

 

All the clips I have chosen for this post are taken from the round about the time I performed with the artists concerned, so it really is how I remember them, even down to the musical arrangements used.  There are plenty of clips from the 50s and 60s available too if you are interested.

 

Anyway, the upshot of the rehearsal was that the first time I actually saw or¬†heard Bobby Rydell was when he walked on to the stage for the first performance.¬† It really was a fabulous show, particularly with our magnificent 7 piece horn section – and all the stops and starts that David had meticulously rehearsed all made perfect sense when seen alongside Bobby’s stage banter.

One challenge did rear its head to me for the first time that evening.  It was first time I had experienced some choppy seas during a performance.  Normally the band all sat at the back of the stage in a purpose built bandstand.  For this performance with the extra players, we all stood out front.  As the ship swayed back and forth I did find myself having to concentrate rather hard on trying to stay balanced.  With nothing to hold onto I gripped my trombone somewhat tighter than usual Рliterally hanging on for dear life!

I never got the chance to chat to Bobby Rydell sadly, so I never got the chance to ask him the big question that had been on my mind the whole week.¬† Was the school, “Rydell High” in the film musical “Grease” named after him?¬† The music style fitted.¬† He was friends with Frankie Avalon who plays a memorable cameo in the movie.¬† It all seems too much of a coincidence…

Well, I’ve just checked Wikipedia, and it says the school is named after Bobby… so it must be true!

 

 

Gig Guide

2 coming up in the next week.¬† The first is the Cheshire Sinfonia at St Michael’s Church, Bramhall, 7 30pm Saturday 21 February.¬† I always enjoy playing the interesting and slightly unusual programmes which this band like to play and this one is no exception.¬† The 2 pieces I am in are definitely worth a listen, 2 less performed works by Elgar (Froissart- my part has a quote from Keats at the top of the page “When chivalry lifted up her lance on high” -pretty much sums up the piece) and Dvorak (his 6th Symphony).¬† The real interest in the concert for me comes in the piece I am not playing in, a piece from one of my all time favourite composers Benjamin Britten –¬†his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.¬† Please do note the comma,¬†a serenade for tenor horn and strings would be an altogether different¬†piece…

Secondly, my funk band Lostock (check my Uptown Funk/ Urmston Funk post) are playing at the world famous Night And Day Café on Tuesday 24 February, 9pm.  Be there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Three

 

eroica

Ok:¬†so those of you who reached the end of last week’s blog will¬†know that this week’s random theme is a list of¬† the greatest 3rd Symphonies.¬†¬†If you’re new to the world of classical music and want to find out more, it’s as good a jumping off point as any other.¬†¬†¬†Why 3rd symphonies?¬† Well no real¬†reason at all, but it just so ¬†happens¬†that¬†3 different things inspired me towards this subject –¬†such is the power of three..

Reason To Make¬†a List of Reasons to Write About Third Symphonies Number 1:¬†¬† Everyone loves a list.¬†¬†The internet in particular loves a list, so it seemed only appropriate that this blog should join in on the online world’s mania for list-making.

Reason To Make a¬†List of Reasons to¬†Write About Third Symphonies Number 2:¬† ¬†The prestigious and popular music blog written by¬†top conductor and friend, Ken Woods, also likes a list occasionally.¬† A recent post of his¬†on the seemingly arbitrary subject, The Greatest Symphonies in the Key of D minor, caught my eye.¬† Ken’s blog posts show real passion, insight and an in-depth knowledge of his topic as well as plenty of humour.¬†No one seems to have picked up on the cheeky Spinal Tap reference in this post: http://kennethwoods.net/blog1/2015/01/10/the-official-definitive-guide-to-the-greatest-d-minor-symphonies-of-all-time/

If Ken’s essays come from a position of knowledge and insight, this blog is more of a pub conversation.¬†A few ‘facts’ tossed about, not too much emotional engagement, some crisps (top ten crisp flavours anyone?)¬† Well, it would be if blokes sat around in pubs discussing favourite symphonies instead of the Premiership. Err,¬†that’s football –¬†right?

Reason To Make a¬†List of Reasons to¬†Write About Third Symphonies Number 3:¬†My wife’s concert this weekend with the Manchester Beethoven Orchestra. They are playing a pair of great 3rd symphonies by Sibelius and Brahms.¬† Now, Sibelius is a composer who can do no wrong in my eyes so I can heartily recommend that one.¬† Brahms, I tend to admire as a ¬†composer rather than love, but there is certainly much to enjoy in this lyrical work.

But, if you decide that 3rd symphonies is your thing, what else is out there?¬† Below, a list of popular choices, a couple of more obscure offerings that deserve, in my opinion,¬†to be¬†more well¬†known, and also a couple of outings by composers that usually do much better….

So here goes:

Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony “The Eroica”

This is one of the all time greats of the classical repertoire, a game changer when it came to symphonic writing, etc etc – and I’m a little embarrassed to say I find it a little bit long and boring….except for that cool bit with the french horns in the scherzo, obviously.¬† But what do I know – this is my list and we’re all free to make up our own minds.¬† What I do love is the history and background¬†surrounding some pieces of music.¬† For instance, the photograph at the top of this post is the title page of the manuscript score of the Eroica.¬† That hole in the paper is where Beethoven has vigorously tried to rub out his dedication to Napoleon following his disgust at him declaring himself Emperor. Pretty cool huh?

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony

Now this is more like it.¬† Mahler generally wrote extremely long symphonies, often concerned with fun topics like death, the inexorable march of fate, life’s profound mysteries – that sort of thing.¬† An oft repeated quote of Mahler’s is that the symphony should be like the world and this is certainly the case with the 3rd.¬† He pretty much throws the kitchen sink at this piece.¬† But unlike some of his works, this is really quite lighthearted and optimistic.¬† And funny.¬† If orchestras aren’t playing it¬†vulgar, they aren’t playing it right.¬† I reckon it’s really quite an easy listen, and not a bad piece to try if you find the world of the symphony a little daunting.¬† It is, however, very long….

Extremely long…

Not as long as the first act of an average Wagner opera, mind you.

Or a Peter Jackson film.

mahler

 

Vaughan Williams’ 3rd Symphony –¬†“A Pastoral Symphony”

English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of those composers who manages to be simultaneously both under- and over-rated.¬† A number of his pieces always tend to appear near the top of the Classic FM favourites chart, but there has been a tendency in the past for some¬†critics to dismiss his music as¬†all a bit landscapey, picture postcardy – famously quoted as ¬†the musical equivalent of “a cow looking over a gate”.¬† This is blatantly untrue if you start to listen to his prodigious output of symphonies, concertos, operas and choral works.¬† However a little background does help with regards to the interpretation of the Pastoral to help banish the memory of the aforementioned cow.¬† Now, there’s nothing wrong with the view that a piece of music should be it’s own thing and be able stand up on it’s own without explanation.¬† After all, music doesn’t tell a story in any real sense.¬† It is just¬†a bunch of notes on a page, instructions for musicians to make sounds – an abstract art- form.¬† But, as with the Mahler above, an understanding of the background and intentions of the composer can provide a significant “in” to this¬†somewhat impenetrable art form.¬† Many people will happily purchase and listen to a modern film soundtrack, often consisting of atonal and dissonant musical techniques but will baulk at the idea of listening to contemporary “difficult”¬†music.¬† So, in a similar way, once we understand that Vaughan Williams was inspired, not by the English countryside, but the fields of Normandy and the¬†graves of WW1 soldiers¬†left behind, this charming melodic music takes on a much deeper significance.

Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Symphony

Rachmaninoff is another of those composers¬†who “serious” musicians are a little suspicious of.¬† How can anyone who writes such memorable tunes actually be any good?!¬† The 2nd symphony is the one that gets performed the most, but in many ways this is the superior piece.¬† It’s shorter and edgier than it’s predecessor.¬† It still contains the romantic melodies we would expect, but just feels all together more spikey and modern.

Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony – “The Organ Symphony”

Probably the most well known of all the pieces on my list, particularly the wonderful climax when the organ kicks in.¬† This was famously used as the theme music for everyone’s favourite movie about a talking pig, “Babe”.¬† There’s much more to it than that famous climax though.¬† Symphonies by French composers are a somewhat rare occurance and it’s¬†wonderful¬† to feel the warm sensuality and joie de vivre associated with the country come through in this delightful piece.

babeA pig – yesterday.

Prokofiev’s 3rd Symphony

I probably liked this when I heard it.

 

 

 

Now a few more obscure choices which, to my mind, could certainly do with a revisit.

 

Scriabin’s 3rd Symphony – “The Divine Poem”

Why is so little of this composer’s output performed?¬† We should definitely be performing more Scriabin.¬† He might have been a bit of a fruitloop with a God complex who spouted lots of pretentious guff about the human spirit aspiring to divinity, but his music is gorgeous and epic.¬† And he’s out of copyright, so it’s not even too expensive a risk for orchestras to take!

Fun fact about Scriabin: he had Synesthesia (saw colours in response to different sounds) and he invented an instrument called a Colour Organ (sounds like the name of a sex toy) so everyone else could see what he saw.

Less fun fact about Scriabin: he died at the age of 43 after a sore on his top lip went septic.¬† Thank Fleming for antibiotics….

Bax’s 3rd Symphony

I like Bax.¬† He’s got a great name. Not many composers out there with 3 letter names (Cui?)¬† We should definitely be performing more Bax.¬† He writes lovely lovely music.

If I’m honest, I would struggle to tell one of his¬†symphonies from another.

Or remember any of the tunes.

Or really be able to tell if it was Bax at all.

But it really is lovely lovely music!

Honegger’s 3rd Symphony “Symphonie Liturgique”

Honegger is generally known for his light hearted witty pieces¬†and his association with¬†the collective of ¬†Paris-based composers known as ‘Les Six’, but he was also a prolific symphonist.¬† La Liturgique is influenced by¬†the 2nd World War and is a chilling depiction of¬†the horrors of mechanized warfare.

 

Finally, a couple of composers whose 3rd symphonies aren’t quite up to their usual standards…

 

Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Symphony

Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve only heard this once on the radio and I’m afraid, to my ears, it seemed a bit meandering and repetitive, with none of the usual melodic invention or passion that you would usually expect from the Russian master.¬† It has to be said that all of Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies are regular visitors to the concert hall, so it seems that even geniuses have the occasional off day…

Shostakovitch’s 3rd Symphony “The First of May”

In terms of structure, it’s hard to say if this really should be called a symphony at all.¬† It feels more like a sort of experimental tone poem with a choir singing a revolutionary anthem tacked on at the end.¬† It’s not¬†a particularly satisfying listen.

But…

The symphonies of Shostakovitch (15 of them) provide an intriguing backdrop to the turbulent history of the USSR over the entire twentieth century, from Shostakovitch as a young idealistic communist, through the horrors of the Stalin years, the War and finally, reflection on the Soviet Union’s place in history.¬† In this respect even Shostakovitch’s lesser works deserve our attention.¬† As with my discussion of the Vaughan Williams symphony above, a lot of these works are phenomenal listens in their own right.¬† With an understanding of the environment in which they were written, they’re mindblowing.

Listen to them all.

 

Gig Guide

I’m playing for the Wilmslow Symphony Orchestra next Saturday 14th February.¬† I talked a little about the programme in the last blog which includes Rimsky Korsakov’s Easter Festival Overture and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’s (or The South Bank Show for those of a certain age).¬† In rehearsals, though, the real revelation has been learning Rachmaninoff’s 1st symphony.¬† It’s another of those pieces that’s very rarely done, but unjustly so.¬† Apparently it had an awful first performance (due to a¬†drunk conductor)¬†and was¬† lost when Rachmaninoff got out of Russia.¬† It was then reconstructed from rediscovered parts after his death and in many ways is a more sophisticated work than his later efforts.¬† Well worth a listen!