Playing popular music with an orchestra has become a standard fare for American orchestras. The West Virginia Symphony has had artists from Kathy Mattea to stars of Broadway to the Irish act Celtic Woman. And it has frequently had cover bands doing music by iconic rock bands like the Moody Blues, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The concerts have been popular with local audiences.
The orchestra injected novelty into the practice Saturday night when it invited three local bands to join it for a concert of their own music worked into orchestral settings. Two came from the rock scene, Qiet and The Company Stores. The other was the jazz quintet The Bob Thompson Unit.
Traveling acts have arrangements of their music ready for orchestras to play. The local bands never had a reason to have arrangements with orchestra parts, so the orchestra had to commission arrangements of the music.
That task fell to local composer, public radio personality and Company Stores member Matt Jackfert. Full disclosure: Matt and I are good friends. He was a student of mine in the West Virginia Youth Symphony. We both studied composition with West Virginia University Composer-in-Residence John Beall (in different decades). We are both in the Kanawha Valley Community Band. We talk composition quite a bit on the side.
Jackfert did an impressive job. One of the orchestra members quipped after the concert that Jackfert’s arrangements made it so “you weren’t bored and you weren’t annoyed.”
Qiet opened with “Waiting Too Long,” a 1970’s-ish tune — think “Shaft” — that in Jackfert’s arrangement could have been at home in a James Bond movie. Guitarist/songwriter Christopher Vincent sang the lead vocal cannily. The band had a Chicago-like sound with the bristling playing of trumpeter Max Venoy and trombonist Jared Layman (another former student of mine from the WVYS). Violinist Tracy Lipscomb (another former student from the University of Charleston’s summer music Camp Amadeus) helped tie the ensemble together astutely.
“Mannequin Man” opened with a brief drum solo for the smooth-playing Steve Barker before launching a jaunty rhythm built over over a 6-7-1 linear cadence driven by bassist James Maddox.
The great “Mayfly Man” had a driving “Mission Impossible” five-beat meter in its verses before a waltzing chorus took over. Vincent sang earnestly while Jackfert’s arrangement drew in the whole orchestra before Melody Rapier’s harp playing brought the song to a gentle close.
The ballad “Bring My Day” mixed calm a capella passages with towering rock stanzas in a stunning conclusion to Qiet’s set.
“Time 2 B One” showed the Bob Thompson Unit’s knack for a flowing tune that sits perfectly on a jazz rock frame. Soprano saxophonist Doug Payne, (more disclosure: I teach his grandson), guitarist Ryan Kennedy and Thompson traded agile solos.
“Chill Facor” had a bluesy minor-key, slow groove that left plenty of room for expansive solos by Thompson, Kennedy and Payne. Jackfert’s arrangement had tall, rich horn and trombone harmonies and sketched a brief duet for flutist Lindsey Goodman and clarinetist Bob Turizianni.
“Oasis” opened with a tricky ostinato which expanded harmonically under a bopping tune. The middle was all swing with Thompson, Payne and Kennedy in full flight. Kennedy shaped a great duet with drummer Tim Courts. Bassist John Inghram had an impressive solo riffing and singing along with himself.
“Fly High” closed the set with light jazz rock and a dazzling hushed final harmony in Jackfert’s arrangement.
The Company Stores opened with “Nightingale” by guitarist Matthew Marks and Jackfert. Violinist Joe Cevallos (another former student from the WVYS) was featured over impressionistic harmonies in the introduction. Vocalist Casey Litz sang gorgeously with inspired phrasing with Cevallos filling in the gaps.
Litz’s “Silence” was subtle, aching and beautiful.
Marks’ “So Good” reminded of the days of rock when bass players actually did something with the full range of their instruments. Bassist Grant Jacobs played with inspiration while Cevallos, now on trumpet, and Jackfert, on trombone and keyboard, added bluesy riffs. Marks had a trippy solo on guitar while drummer John Query was rock solid.
Jackfert and Marks’ “Holy Land” opened with a searching introduction for the strings before the driving rock of the song. A bridge in five-beat meter made for a striking contrast. Cevallos played a violin solo that borrowed liberally from the idioms of rock guitar.
Former conductor Grant Cooper led the orchestra with his usual efficiency and insight.
Cooper’s “Appalachian Autumn” featured violinist Jennifer Wood playing with beautiful expression. “The West Virginia Hills” closed out the arrangement with ever-increasing energy. The audience, which included substantial groups of fans of each band, loved it. Most seemed to view the evening as a triumph for the orchestra. I did as well.