When I decided to take some time off from the Met Opera this year, I naturally presumed that my wardrobe would do the same. Fewer tuxedos and more hoodies. Fewer shiny dress shoes, more sneakers. Like if Mr. Rogers changed into his cardigan but then left it on. For a long time. Little did I know that my dry cleaning bills and tie collection would reach record highs during this orchestral leave of absence. This past week I took out my finest threads to perform and attend not one, but two gala evenings! One in LA, the other in NY. Here’s the scoop…..
Big Fancy Party #1: The first annual LACMA Art + Film Gala last Saturday in Los Angeles. The task? Assemble a chamber orchestra, create 15 arrangements, and conduct a performance. Prep time? 1 month. First up, we had to determine what to play for this event and then put together a top shelf team for the project. The evening was to honor John Baldessari in art and Clint Eastwood in film, so we attempted to select songs that would hopefully have some significance to both honorees. We decided on some Morricone, vintage Hollywood scores, and tracks from the Rome Album as a nod to Mr. Eastwood, and took on a more contemporary approach for Baldessari. Notably, Tom Waits’ Dead and Lovely (Mr. Baldesarri is a fan) but also songs that included everything from Bjork to Jonsi.
In retrospect it actually would’ve been fun to film some of the process, to see all the moving parts come together. Copyist Jim Bruening, going over every last detail of the scores and parts. Rob Moose, sitting on the back of a tour bus somewhere in Europe, arranging Bon Iver and Radiohead. My old Juilliard schoolmate Mark Robertson, assembling an all star group of players. I personally took on the challenge of arranging Radiohead’s Let Down and Kid A and came to a conclusion that many others (notably pianist Christopher O’Riley) have likely come to. Great music is great music. Whether it’s “Reggaehead” or “Jaydiohead“, solid tunes hold up no matter how hard one might try to reconfigure it.
With only one evening to rehearse these scores of wet ink, I was extremely impressed with the speed and accuracy that the LA musicians learned the music. I would have been happy with just that, but they also played with pride, joy, and a sense of purpose that was most unexpected. That they were able to navigate their way through all these varying styles (and my conducting!) made the performance extremely enjoyable and quite successful. And you don’t have to take my word for it. The first person in a long line of celebrities to come up and congratulate us was one of the biggest music fans around, Mr. Jack Black. His first words were “man, that was fucking awesome!” (this will of course be the first line of my new bio in all future program liner notes).
Coincidentally, my friend Henry Joost was also there as he and his directing partner Ariel Shulman had made a short film about John Baldessari for the evening. Henry was with me when we informed Jack as to who would be performing for dinner. It was great fun to watch his head explode when we told him. Stevie Wonder. Needless to say, it was a night I’ll not soon forget.
Big Fancy Party #2: The International Rescue Committee Freedom Award dinner last Wednesday at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The task? Accompany my good friend Morena Baccarin to dinner. Prep time? 24 hrs. Ok, so this was way easier than gala #1 and I didn’t even wear a tie. And aside from hearing John Legend perform, there wasn’t any music involved. But this was an incredibly powerful evening for completely different reasons. I’m embarrassed that I had never really heard of the International Rescue Committee. The American branch was founded in 1933 by Albert Einstein and it’s a nonsectarian, nongovernmental international relief and development organization that does wonderful things for people in need.
The Freedom Award dinner was to honor Tom Brokaw and his family for their work with the IRC over the years. Hosted by David Gregory (who was surprisingly hilarious), the dinner included an odd roast-like presentation from David Letterman and a very moving speech from General Colin L Powell. But the most inspiring part of the evening was when a young woman named Torbertha Torbor took the stage and spoke of her long journey from being a refugee in war torn Liberia to becoming a med student at UC Berkeley, with help from the IRC. I was immediately engaged and decided to donate and get involved in whatever way I could.
Tom Brokaw was quick and to the point in his acceptance speech when he said “part of the ethos of growing up in Yankton and throughout South Dakota was that you’re always measured by whether you were giving back, not by what you’d accomplished for yourself. It was about what you were doing for others. I think there was an extension of that once we began to raise our own family. We don’t think of it as charity work. We never call it that. What we call it is an obligation”. For anyone who doesn’t know about the IRC and would like to learn more, simply go here: The International Rescue Committee
So there you have it. After feeling like I skipped several steps on the social ladder and spent the week hobnobbing with Hollywood celebs, I learned a few things: 1) I can’t believe that there are people out there that do this kind of thing every week, it’s exhausting 2) Thanks to my friend Simon Spurr, I learned that a good suit really can open some doors and 3) I need a tan (as evidenced from this picture above)