One of the most interesting and also most challenging musical endeavors I’ve done recently is an assignment for the Racine Choral Arts Society and their concert coming up this weekend. It’s going to be a celebration of folk song and it will feature a return engagement by a wonderful husband- wife duo, Scott and Michelle Dalziel. They have performed all over the midwest and have quite a following here in Racine because of their frequent engagements at The Yard Arm (one of our favorite hangouts)- which is how Jim Schatzman, the director of Choral Arts, became fans of theirs . . . . and why he approached them a couple of years ago with a commission to write some songs to be used in a new, original musical adaption of Kevin Hankes’ best-selling children’s Book “Julius, The Baby of the World.” They agreed- but I was brought on board to take their songs (I think there were four of them) and arrange some backup parts for the chorus to sing. (I also wrote some original music of my all to be dropped in at certain points in the story.) It’s one thing to create an arrangement of something like “Amazing Grace,” because you know that it’s rather unlikely that John Newton is going to rush the stage in a rage because he doesn’t like what you’ve done to his song. (There in some sense of safety and insulation when you’re arranging something by a composer long gone.) But Scott and Michelle are of course alive and well and it was very important to me that my arrangements would be true to the homespun simplicity of their songs and yet would be something that the classically-inclined Choral Arts Society would be comfortable with and would sound good singing. Anyway, much to my relief they liked what I did and “Julius” was an enormous hit.
Anyway, Scott and Michelle were brought back for this concert to sing some of their most popular songs, and for eight or nine of them (by now I’ve lost track) I again was charged with creating arrangements so the Choral Arts Society could sing with them. In the midst of working on the project, I started to wonder if this was a collaboration that really made much sense. Scott and Michelle’s songs are so nice and fresh and fun exactly as they are – and once again the biggest challenge for me was to create choral parts that would not detract from the essence of the songs. And because the Choral Arts Society is a group that performs things like Carmina Burana and Bach canatas – in other words, classical repertoire – I knew that for many of them this would be a disconcerting walk down a very different musical path where not everything is literally notated on the page and where you have to give yourself over to a “let’s see how it goes” or “just follow along and you’ll get the feel of it” mentality. And as I have visited their rehearsals over the last month, I had the distinct impression that at least some of the chorus members were feeling uneasy and out of sorts. . . like a string quartet that’s been drafted to play for a square dance.
I was harboring some reservations about how well everything would pan out – but Jim was confident that once the chorus was in the same room with Scott and Michelle and their wonderful warmth and energy, everything would feel entirely different. And boy, was he right! Last night was the first time the chorus and Scott & Michelle were together to rehearse for this weekend’s concert, and you could just feel a sizzle of joy and anticipation in the room. It helps that Scott & Michelle, besides being such accomplished musicians (Scott is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard, and MIchelle’s singing voice is remarkably distinctive and beautiful) are also really nice, fun people who know how to get everyone working together as one happy team. Part of the key is that they are rather self-deprecating about their own musical know-how, since they tend to operate mostly By Ear rather than by reading music- but in fact they are superlative musicians in every way that counts in this kind of music.
Anyway, it was wonderful to have the chorus and Scotti & Michelle together at last, and that’s really all it took for this to finally begin to feel “right.” As the chorus heard Scott & Michelle sing these songs, they began to take on that style as their own. And because Scott & MIchelle liked my arrangements (or at least said they did) I think they found themselves inspired by the beautiful singing of the chorus. That’s part of what I hadn’t considered… that not only would this concert be a healthy learning experience and musical stretch for the Choral Arts Society, but that it was also a way for Scott & Michelle to experience some of their own songs in new ways.
Fun as this is turning out to be, that doesn’t change the fact this has been a very very tricky, time-consuming challenge for me. One reason is that these songs are not written out anyplace, so all I had to go on was listening to the recordings and from that figure out exactly what the harmonic structure was for each song – and then from there to figure out what the chorus should do that would enhance rather than detract from the songs. On more than occasion through this, I found myself sitting at our piano with blank manuscript paper sitting before me – and would find myself praying for inspiration. And evidently those prayers were answered because all eight arrangements seem to be working out nicely – and hopefully the audiences this weekend will agree. But honestly, I already have all the endorsement I want from Scott and Michellee- – their smiles and their compliments make all of this worth it. So does the sight of seeing the Choral Arts members finally enjoying themselves with these songs.
pictured above: Scott and Michelle Dalziel jamming with the Choral Arts Society. The performances are both Friday and Saturday nights at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in downtown Racine.