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The "Dream" Concert

The second half started without me. I was in the green room, tearing out pages from the “Phantom of the Opera” book because I didn’t want the audience to see it when I walked out. Suddenly, I heard applause. “They’re gonna tune, right?” I asked one of the musicians backstage. “No, they’re tuned. Daniel’s out there. You don’t play on this one, right?”

Little problem. I was supposed to start the second half.

Neither shoe was on. The greenroom was backstage left. I had to enter from stage right. I ran as quietly as I could trying not to clomp on the stage. We had two things in our favor. The first half had started with an intentional gag where I was late. And Daniel had forgotten to change into the more casual, all black with a red scarf. I scooted out on stage and quipped, “You knew about the costume change, right?” The audience laughed and applauded, and we were off on the search for volunteers to play the rain sticks. Here is the moment as you may have seen it.

The result of this fiasco was, however, that I did not have time to grab scarves that I was going to give on stage to Claire and Julia Smith, our rainstick players – AND I then completely neglected to talk about the amazing scarves that Jessica Campion Burdick and Christopher Burdick of Studio eQ designed for the show… and have designed for every one of my shows. (I think consequently they are raising their prices on me.) And furthermore, because of the placement of their table and the fact that the house opened late, many of you didn’t get to see their great work, so I hope you visit and check them out!!! I also have concert scarves available.

Photo credit: Mitch Merritt, L'Image Photography

No joke, this concert was the hardest production I’ve ever worked on. Most people would only choose to produce or perform or compose and are not stupid enough to do all three.

In truth, I got cocky. After the recital last year with Michael Sushel, I knew the timeline for publicity, for booking, for rehearsals, for practice. The problem was I didn’t factor in all the requirements of the orchestra, dealing with a larger house, sponsorships, what composing for full orchestra actually required and that all of these things would take away time from all the others.

I’m going to only dedicate one paragraph to a handful of funny things that happened in prep. If you want to know the whole story, we can go drinking. I wrote “A Concerto in Crayon” at the very last minute. So last minute that my person, Crystal, refused to call me until I completed it. I sent Carolyn Li, our amazing contractor, parts to e-mail to the musicians to practice, only to get a call from Carolyn Osborn, our fabulous concert master telling me that I left off all dynamics and articulations, and so I had to go back through all the score for all three pieces on the program and check to be sure all of them were in. (They were in my head, apparently not on paper.) Then Carolyn One tells me if I rewrite some of the parts, I could save doubling fees – so I dropped the extra horns, lowered the tuba an octave. Combined the English horn into 2nd oboe – and saved $600! I printed and bound all the parts to the originals and showed up to rehearsal forgetting only one… mine.

Where I really want to start talking about the show is at the first rehearsal. We were at Daniel’s church. Carolyn Li put together an amazing group of musicians. There was a real worry after the last Dream Orchestra concert about the quality of players being hired. So that contractor was let go, and our new stellar contractor put together an orchestra about 85% new. It was intimidating to have read their resumes. Many had played on film scores of composers that I idolize and in orchestras that I repeatedly go see as a fan. And then the first notes of the Rachmaninov began, and holy smokes, I got goosebumps. I think because it was a closed rehearsal, I didn’t get concerned about what coaches were thinking or how an audience was reacting. It was just doing what I could to raise my game to play along side this great sounding orchestra. As a kid you strive for this. As an adult, it’s humbling.

Before I move to concert day, I need to talk about Urth Caffe. Shallom and Jilla Berkman, the owners, were so generous in catering all of our rehearsals… 3 rehearsals x 53 musicians and crew + delivery and set up. Their daughter, stellar soprano Golda, had performed with the orchestra twice before, and they had graciously catered everything… which makes sense when your daughter is performing, but for just another Dream Orchestra concert, this was above and beyond the call. The orchestra members and I really appreciated it!!!!

I woke up on the day of show telling myself to have a good day. Getting to this point was so stressful and in some ways disappointing, that I really just wanted to enjoy the concert and put on a good show. Those who have worked with me in the past know it’s like this. I go crazy in pre-production, work my ass off and drive everyone nuts, but flip the switch for production, because I want to have a good time and enjoy the fruits of everyone’s labor.

The acoustics in the Aratani Theatre really forced our hand. It was dry and difficult to play in. You had to keep your eye on the stick and not rely on what you were hearing as sound was escaping upward and getting caught in pockets and bouncing everywhere.

In the original plan for the opening number, the orchestra plays, there’s a huge drum roll and the piano rises up out of the pit with me playing "Chopsticks". Because of the acoustics, we moved the piano and the musicians all the way forward to the lip of the stage, thus forcing us to re-orchestrate the entrance… me being late, Daniel calling me on the cell… and how fortuitous was that with the catastrophe of the opening of the second half… because everyone thought now the second half opening was part of the show, except for two of my creative partners who told me they knew it was a mistake because I never would have written the same gag twice. If you're going to walk on stage without me, at least come up with something more original. Damn.

I decided to rent a piano for the concert. Although it somehow ended up costing twice the written quote. I think it would have been better if I had been apprised of the dealings along the way, instead of finding out when I was ready to pay the bill. The problem with the raise in cost was I scratched renting the piano from the Thursday rehearsal at the theatre, and so I came in Saturday blind (or what’s the equivalent word for lack of touch). Prior to our dress rehearsal Saturday, I sat down to play, and I had gotten the warning that the Hamburg Steinway was hard to play but for real??? Parts took so much more work. And the repeated notes in the “Totentanz” had me alarmed. But this is the instrument we were stuck with as I could see the stage crew taking my head off if I had them move the orchestra chairs again to switch pianos.

“Cold Open” (originally titled "Variations on Chopsticks") incorporated not only “Chopsticks”, but also a variation on the “Dies Irae” theme that we would hear in the Rachmaninov and Liszt and also an inverse run of the augmented 4th intervals I used in “Concerto in Crayon”. The purpose of the piece was to be light and fun and to give people an extra couple minutes to get in their seats. I think the comedy added immediately made us accessible to the crowd, especially the younger audience members, and set the tone for the night.

“The Norwood Affair” was a film score for a UCLA film we did, expanded for full orchestra. I decided to play the piano from the back because it really was an orchestral piece. Unfortunately, one of the horn players got off by two measures and it really threw everyone else off, including me, and the orchestra didn’t recover for a minute. I think this might have benefitted from being rehearsed more than 1½ times. Maybe if Daniel had studied the scores for the originals prior to the first rehearsal so this one wouldn't have been bumped. As a piece it got some nice compliments from the orchestra because it was different, and with the originals, I was really attempting to not repeat myself from song to song. A funny note now that we've seen the video playback with four cameras running at the same time. Daniel started the piece before I sat down at the back piano. And in the end, we're excising the errant portion from the final presentation.

The Rachmaninov. I really don’t know what I was thinking putting this on the program for last year’s recital. I really don’t know what I was thinking putting this on this year’s concert. BUT I’m glad I didn’t drop it off this time. Frankly, it needs another 3-6 months of work. I had visions of having the clarinet do the opening from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” before launching into the Rach. But this would have been an inside joke to people who had come in 2012, and no one else would have gotten it, and it wasn’t that funny.

There was so much emphasis in prep put on the 18th Variation, because it is so famous, I honestly could not memorize it, and it came out different every time. Even in listening to playback, it is fast. I didn’t really solidify how I wanted to play it until Michael Sushel told me to picture two lovers in conversation. Light bulb. In the end, it was still fast.

My page turner, Maya, was awesome. Some of you thought she missed a page or two, but we actually had coordinated who would turn what. I drew lines down the pages where the turns needed to happen, and in Variation 20, the one page I really needed to be turned, I looked up and panicked because I had drawn the line in the wrong place! Under my breath I was going, “Not yet, not yet”… but Maya turned the page where I drew the line, and all I could think as I missed two runs was, boy am I stupid. Also, confession… this was only my second non-stop run through of this piece, the first being the prior Sunday with my accompanist.

But what is odd, is even in listening to and knowing where the mistakes are, the Rach came out passable. The orchestra sounds fabulous on the recording, and I frequently feel like it is not me playing with them in the portions that come out well.

“A Concerto in Crayon” turned out to be the big composition success and oddly enough, the showpiece of the night. I had spent a lot of time listening to Pixar scores and a lot of time procrastinating. Three weeks prior to the concert (my birthday), the piece was not done. Crystal actually told me she would not call until I finished, and she didn’t. What is that all about?

For once I really had a blank slate with no requirements, no picture to write to. So I created a story about Kai, my nephew, who loves to draw, and could picture him on a boat sailing toward a battle, trying to rescue a fair maiden and fighting a dragon. He would draw arrows and volcanos and draw swords. The composition came about in little pieces, with a simple opening theme, lots of percussion, trombones, strings, drumming in the piano, rainsticks. The pianist kinda took off on his own tempo in spots. But in the end, it became something I could listen to over and over and enjoy. And the reception to it has been so gratifying.

I’m going to be honest about “Totentanz”. I didn’t really pick this up properly until two weeks before the concert. I didn’t think I had to. Until the performance came and I forgot this and that and missed top notes and bottom notes, etc. There were a couple of cadenzas that went down in flames, and I have thought about subbing them out with the recording of the previous recital. But the truth is, in a live performance things happen, and did it impact the overall thrill of the piece? No. People who have heard me do this several times loved it with orchestra and so it stays, blemishes and all.

It was important for me to play “Music of the Night”. Crystal, who I played it for, had flown overnight on Friday to make it back in time for the concert. It is her favorite song. It also gave the concert a nice breather. We're no longer involved, so basically I had fifty musicians on stage snickering at me behind my back.

“Libertango” is my favorite tango of all time. When Daniel suggested it as the orchestra encore, I was thrilled. It is the signature piece of the Dream Orchestra. And yes, I know I should have taped my pages together. But once I finally thought about it, 5 minutes to show, there was no way I was going to accomplish that, so instead I just get all the laughs about it.

For me, this concert was a stunning success. The thank you list is endless. Mom, Dad, Midori, Justin, Kai and Shea… for supporting the crazy venture, for going along on the ride knowing it’s important, and for ultimately stepping in financially when some sponsors fell through. To Jennifer and Bill Fain… for the socks, for the sponsorship and for keeping me employed all the way through this music comeback. To Jilla, Golda and Shallom Berkman… for being the classy Dream Orchestra sponsor in perpetuity whether or not you provide another sandwich… all the musicians love you. To Miyeko Heishi, Scott Johnson & Dr. Margaret Bates, Emilie Nakayama & Emil Dabora, Cynthia Shaff Hadel. Michelle & Daniel Ko, Oberlina & Sergio Escamilla, Yoon Kahm, Lorraine Wong, Ruth and Dana Smith, Anne Youngblood, thank you for your generosity. To Stef, Crystal, Jonathan and Nitya… for keeping me laughing. To Matt & Jenice… for believing in me at the beginning and all the way through. To Erin and Chil for bringing me back to music. To Daniel Suk for opening the possibilities and not quitting. To Heewon and Michael… thank you for the amazing journey. To those I cannot name… but to our amazing concert master, Carolyn Osborn, who led the orchestra by example and professionalism. To Carolyn Li... who put the amazing orchestra together and without whom the show would not have been the stellar success… we are in your debt. And thank you to everyone who supported the concert by coming or sending well wishes… it does not happen without you!

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