In honor of purple

Dayton Philharmonic performs Prince

Photo: The band from left to right: Kevin Randolph, Jairus Mozee, MacKenzie Green, Andrew Gouche, David Haddon

By Tim Walker

Long before his untimely death in 2016 at the age of 57, Prince had secured his place in the pantheon of our very greatest popular musicians. From the moment he signed his first recording contract at 18, his work, style, and image became a part of our national conversation, and the public’s familiarity with and love for his many classic songs—among them “1999,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Kiss,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Purple Rain”—seem poised to continue far into the future. As a recording artist Prince was peerless, and as a cultural icon he was enigmatic and intriguing. His music still fascinates.

The Dayton Philharmonic, in the first installment of its Rockin’ Orchestra series for the 2017-2018 season, will be presenting a tribute to the artist in “The Music of Prince” on Saturday, Sept. 30 at downtown’s beautiful Schuster Center. The one-time-only performance, which begins at 8 p.m., will feature guest vocalist Mackenzie Green, music director and drummer Nisan Stewart, and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Neal Gittleman.

“Of course, the core of Prince’s music is the band…guitar, bass, drums, keyboard,” says conductor Neal Gittleman when speaking with the Dayton City Paper recently. “But Prince’s sound palette is incredibly rich, and that’s what opens up opportunities for the orchestra to add to the band. The real challenge for the arranger is the dense web of sound—some might say wall of sound—that Prince used. When the band creates that wall, there’s only so much the orchestra can do to contribute. So the arranger has to be careful and wise in their use of the orchestra to make sure we’re doing things that (a) contribute, and (b) can be heard, not over the wall, but poking through it. Arranger Jennifer Fekete has done an excellent job of figuring out how to meld the band with the orchestra.”

The Rockin’ Orchestra Series, sponsored by Dayton Freight, has proven to be one of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance and the Dayton Philharmonic’s most accessible and popular annual series. In a typical Rockin’ Orchestra performance, the DPO performs a selection of popular songs by a particular artist while accompanied by an energetic rock band and one or more vocalists. Upcoming performances in this season’s series will celebrate the music of Elton John, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, U2, and The Who.

When asked if presenting an evening of popular music with rock musicians and the orchestra together, as opposed to the usual classical fare, presents any unique challenges to him as conductor, Gittleman says, “Not especially. The conductor’s challenge, and job, is to communicate to the orchestra the essence of the music, to help them play the music skillfully and faithfully. It’s the same challenge and job with Prokofiev as it is with Prince. Just a different style to assimilate and embrace.”

The 2017–2018 season marks Yale graduate Neal Gittleman’s 22nd year as conductor of the Dayton Philharmonic. During his tenure, the DPO has received nine ASCAP Awards for adventurous programming, and the prestigious Ohio Governor’s Award for the Arts. Before coming to Dayton, the Brooklyn-born Gittleman served 10 seasons with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as Associate Conductor and then Resident Conductor. Gittleman has also guest conducted many of the country’s leading orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra; the Chicago, San Francisco, Minnesota, Phoenix, and Indianapolis symphony orchestras; and the Buffalo Philharmonic.

If you’ve never attended a classical concert, you might be pleasantly surprised by the energy and liveliness of a DPO Rockin’ Orchestra performance. The audience, perhaps more casually dressed than one might expect for a typical Schuster Center event, claps, shouts, and sings along while the conductor, the symphonic musicians, and the rock group and vocalists literally “jam” on a selection of classic songs that everyone can appreciate. It is an evening in celebration of music, and a melding of the popular with the highbrow that music lovers from all backgrounds can enjoy. When asked what audiences can expect to see during the DPO’s upcoming “The Music of Prince,” the conductor makes this clear.

“Well, no one’s Prince except Prince,” laughs Gittleman. “But Mackenzie Green is an amazing singer who’s committed to performing Prince’s songs as they should be performed. So lots of funk, lots of great vocals, lots of great guitar, and lots of faithful renditions of these great songs. You know, that’s not so far afield from what we do all the time at the DPO. When we play Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, our goal is to play that music as the composer would have wanted to hear it. Given how much Prince was all about control, that’s exactly how we have to approach his music. Because if we don’t play it the way Prince would have wanted to hear it, he won’t let us sleep soundly at night!”

The DPAA and the Dayton Philharmonic present “The Music of Prince” at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in Dayton on Saturday, Sept. 30. The performance starts at 8 p.m. For tickets or more information, please visit TicketCenterStage.com or call the box office at 888.228.3630.

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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