If you’re like me — and I’m not saying you are — you’ve viewed the L.A. Philharmonic’s summer series of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl featuring guest rock and pop performers with a mixture of goofily naive rock-fan exhilaration and slight dubiosity. The idea seems a good one, where the rock bands get a chance to present fully fleshed-out versions of familiar songs — another kind of remix — allowing us to hear what our imaginations might have only hinted at in the original versions.
It’s also just good fun to watch the electric bands get the opportunity to come off larger than life in a way that a mere small set in a dingy nightclub couldn’t possibly convey. Call it the gawrsh factor — you’re cheering the bands on as they scale the highest heights, and it makes you feel like maybe you too could be up on that stage in a star-studded shower of grandeur and majesty . . .
Then again, you might be one of those picky types who fret about how that essential hard-hitting rockness, you know, of your fave band’s songs is going to get messed with, like: Is laying a ton of strings and horns on top of that edgy savage teenbeat going to turn it into a big soft pile of adult-oriented mush?
Several factors figure heavily in the equation for a successful pairing at these Hollywood Bowl shows, not the least of which is the sound mix. The potential problems are obvious: Without a proper sound balance, the rock band’s going to obliterate the orchestra, or the ork is going to bury the band in great globs of symphonic goo. To my ear anyway, they’ve done a pretty good job of it at the Bowl this summer; the Decemberists’ pointyhead art-pop was ideally served in an even more heavily romanticized soundscape; Cheap Trick’s performance of Sgt. Pepper was very good too, having been aided on the sound-mixing desk by the Beatles album’s original engineer, Geoff Emerick.
Our next opportunity to hear the sound of oil and water mix into a bubblingly new compound will be on September 29, when Conor Oberst’s heartland indie-rock ensemble Bright Eyes will be joined by the Phil at the Bowl. The band’s recent Cassadaga album frames Oberst’s literately impassioned songs in increasingly more sophisticated musical settings, and the newer songs would thus seem perfect for orchestral elaboration. The band’s longtime producer, Mike Mogis, achieved a fantastically varied and even epic sound on the disc of otherwise country- and folk-inflected rock, and band member Nate Walcott did several excellent string arrangements. I wondered how they went about transforming the material for a performance with an orchestra.
“We’re really into not repeating ourselves,” says Oberst on the phone from his tour stop in Denver. “I always figure if we keep pushing ourselves to do something new for ourselves, then hopefully it’ll translate into something interesting for the audience.”
Bright Eyes will be the first band at the Bowl this summer to have orchestral arrangements written by a member of the group. Oberst wishes to point out that he thinks of Bright Eyes’ Bowl performance as “Nate’s time to shine. I think he deserves to have one of the greatest orchestras in the world play his music.” Wolcott has apparently been working himself sick for the last four or five months to make sure that the translation of the Bright Eyes sound comes off as non-treacly and un-saccharine.
“A lot of the stuff we have charts already made for when we recorded with an orchestra on Cassadaga,” says Oberst. “He’s making minor alterations to them, but he’s gotta make all-new arrangements for a bunch of new songs too. When Nate was arranging the songs, especially like the older songs that were never really intended to have an orchestra on them, he was very careful to not do anything that’s too grandiose. It should feel like a part of the song and not something that’s just laid on top of it. That was something that we’ve been pretty conscious of.”
Suzie Katayama, who conducted the orchestral parts on the Cassadaga sessions, will be leading the L.A. Phil at the Bowl. “She’s a friend of ours and totally understands the music and is well-versed in what we’re all about,” says Oberst, “so having her at the helm makes me feel a lot better about everything.”
Well, Conor, there you are at the Hollywood Bowl, with the greatest orchestra in the world behind you, and . . .
“I mean, it’s certainly daunting,” he says, “and I feel nervous about it, because we don’t really have any time to rehearse with them, pretty much get like one rehearsal and then go out and do it. The idea is, you don’t ever mess up. [Laughs.] I guess it works out.”
The Bowl orchestra comprises many players who are regularly called upon for film-scoring sessions; they’re used to getting arrangements together fairly quickly. The Phil’s concertmaster, lead violinist Bing Wang, says the experience of collaborating with pop artists at the Bowl is not terribly difficult to do with finesse, and, in fact, for the most part it’s a lot of fun.
“All of these shows are put together in one rehearsal,” she says. “And sometimes we don’t even use up the whole three hours!” She laughs. “Most of the time, our lines are pretty much background music, and we have fairly easy parts. When I received the violin parts to the Bright Eyes, I suggested to the librarian to get tempo markings, metronome markings, from the orchestrator from the band, because I need to know how fast it should go, so that we have the right bowing.
“The key for us is to have a conductor who really knows how to work with us, give us the right cues, because we don’t know the music. Sometimes we have a vamp, where they just go on, where they talk or where they sing, and we need good instructions on where we should come in, how fast we should play. If we have a very good conductor, it’s no problem for us at all.”
The L.A. Phil players have been blessed to work under no doubt the most rhythmically adept conductor on the planet, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and this has been excellent preparation for the orchestra’s collaborations with the beat-heavy bands at the Bowl.
“Salonen’s rhythm technique is the greatest I’ve ever seen,” Wang says. “And this really affects the orchestra. The articulation is really good; we have good, sharp rhythm, especially where we have to interpret music written in the 20th century, or written by living composers, because they very often write very complicated rhythms. Now when I’m listening to somebody play, I have a higher rhythmical expectation — I want it to be more accurate and clean.”
She says to offset the roar from the electric band onstage at the Bowl, the orchestra indulges in a little audio trickery, such as employing individual mikes clipped behind the bridges on the stringed instruments; the winds are miked very close to the instrument, and the sound engineer adjusts and shapes the sound from their combined output.
“These shows can be on the louder side,” she says. “We have to put baffles around the drum set, just to block some of the sound out. [Laughs.] Sometimes we have to wear earplugs; I don’t particularly want to be seen wearing earplugs onstage, but it could be very loud, sitting next to these musicians, and we cannot hear ourselves so well.”
To best fit the rhythms and dynamics of the electric band, Wang says the orchestra makes small adjustments in its playing style as well.
“Some conductors like to conduct ahead of the music, so symphonic musicians tend to play after the beat,” she says. “With them [the electric band], I know they’re spot-on, so we have to be more on the beat, or we just hear the drum set really ahead of us all the time. And sometimes, because we need to swing a little bit or we need to do this or that, we react accordingly.
“And when everything else is louder, we definitely play louder!”
Bright Eyes performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Sat., Sept. 29.