Posts Tagged: Orchestration



A few weeks ago a really fun project dropped out of the sky: orchestrating a live-action version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that will tour the nation and play for several weeks at the Chicago Theatre and the Theater at Madison Square Garden.

Orchestrating this show is so much fun. It’s like orchestrating Guys & Dolls (complete with four violin parts) or a mid-career Sinatra album. I’m trying as best I can to recreate the original score, but also to enhance it – to make it sound like you remember it sounding rather than what it actually sounded like (Ina talks about this a lot with her recipes.)

Then there’s all the shiny toys I get to use, the glocks and harps and celeste. It’s like I’m a dress-maker and an honest-to-god child princess has walked into the room and commanded me to use every sparkle and glitter in my cabinet.

And boy, did this guy Johnny Marks know how to write a song or what? We’re talking ONE-FIVE-ONE baby. Secondary dominants. Consequent-antecedent phrases. Quarters and halves. Primary colors and basic shapes. Good, strong tunes. The musical language is similar from song to song, two-steps and waltzes all the way through but the construction is so solid you don’t get tired of it.

This baby has to be written and recorded before November though, so it’s long days and lots of notes. I allow myself one episode of The Andy Griffith Show during my lunch break. Has there ever been a better show? There certainly hasn’t been a show with a better score. That studio orchestra – I wonder if it’s the same one that Lucy used, like if all the Desilu shows shared the same musicians. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: whoever scored the Andy Griffith show is a genius.

Anyway, I’ve got to score 2 more cues today, but if you’re looking to bathe yourself in pure nostalgia, check out those tour dates and find a performance of RTRNR near you!!

Norman Ludwin: Scape-grace

In a few days’ time I will conduct a concert featuring the first movement of Giovanni Bottesini’s second concerto for double bass and orchestra, which truth be told is not much of a piece, but it’s better not to mention it since bass players have so little anyway.

This piece, I’ve come to find out, does not exist in an orchestral form handed down by the composer – if there ever was an original orchestration, it has been lost.  All that remains to posterity is a piano transcription (which may or may not actually be from the composer’s pen).

It would seem there are as many arrangements of this piece as there are recordings, however, the only arrangement I was able to come by was written by a bassist/orchestrator named Norman Ludwin.

Mr. Ludwin’s biography indicates that he is currently employed as an orchestration teacher.  If this piece were a freshman orchestration assignment, I would give it an F.  Not one chord is voiced correctly, nor is there any attempt made at logical voice leading.  Bars have been copied and pasted willy-nilly between parts with no regard to register or playability.  Enharmonic spellings are but a sick joke.

One such page of this drivel with my extensive corrections

How many ways can I dis-repudiate this mingle-mangle of an orchestration?  It is a hack-job by a scape-grace.  It is the work of an author who could not tell a perfect fifth from a pig squeal, nor an E-flat from an earring.  It is slap-dashery of the highest order.

A glance at his biography tells us that Mr. Ludwin, after a long career as a professional bassist, decided to return to school to better his skills as a composer/orchestrator in 2003, finally earning a doctorate in the field in 2007.  His imdb profile profile even indicates that he worked as an orchestrator on two superb film scores (John Carter and Super 8, both by the brilliant Michael Giacchino) (though, on films with Music Departments dozens-strong, who knows exactly what that means.)

Here I am even willing to give Mr. Ludwin the benefit of the doubt: perhaps this arrangement represents an effort made prior to his advanced education.  But if this be the case, the only honorable thing is for Mr. Ludwin to remove such an offensive work from his catalogue until he brings it up to his current standards.  I would not want to be judged professionally on work that I found sub-par, and have gone to strenuous lengths to improve my earlier works.  It is up to Mr. Ludwin to do the same.

Until that day may come, I offer two challenges:

1) I hereby offer my services as an arranger free of charge to anyone who would like an original orchestration of the Bottesini bass concerto, if only in the hopes of siphoning away funds from this street mountebank.

2) Should Mr. Ludwin choose to defend his work, he will have to do so on the field of honor, for I hereby challenge him to a duel, with pistols, at dawn on a day of his choosing.  I do so in defense of the dignity of the musical arts.

A Book of Orchestrators

(and orchestrations)


I just finished reading Steve Suskin’s The Sound of Broadway Music, not five days after Terry Teachout did the same.  What a book!  What a HUGE gap this fills in for anybody interested in how Broadway Melodies get transformed from a tune with words to a what you hear in the theater.

I’ve been conducting musicals since I was 16 years old, and this book for the first time demystified Broadway scores in a major way.  I can remember conducting Kiss Me, Kate when I was a senior in high school and wondering where in Creation the dance music came from – reading the music (specifically, the “Tarantella”), it just seemed impossible that it was written by Cole Porter.  It turns out that a lady named Genevieve Pitot basically improvised it over a period of several days working with choreographer Hanya Holm.  This is what’s known as “dance arranging”, and the dance arranger might improvise something that has nothing to do with the score and then go home and arrange themes from the show to correspond to the dance patterns.

From there, Ms. Pitot’s scores went to Russell Bennett (who was the credited orchestrator on the show) and Don Walker (who did about a third of the total orchestrations – uncredited, as was so often the case).  These two gentlemen, along with very minor contributions from Walter Paul and Hans Spialek, orchestrated the entire score a mere 10 days before the opening.

This book is so tremendously informative, I would recommend it to anybody interested in Broadway musicals.  Suskin did a HUGE amount of research to put this whole thing together, and he is kind enough to share the great stories that he dug up in the process.  For example, a story from Stephen Sondheim that I had never encountered anywhere else, about how a strong-willed director/choreographer can actually trump a composer on his own orchestrations:

Jerry [Robbins] took over the orchestra during the dress rehearsal for “Somewhere,” and proceeded to circle the instruments.  “Now I want those out of there…”  He thought that Lenny had made it too lush.  I remember, I was sitting next to Lenny in the back o f the house.  Jerry hadn’t objected at the two orchestra readings.  But hearing it in the theatre with his dancers onstage, Jerry went running down the aisle, changing the orchestration.  I went, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to write home about this.”  Then I looked over, and Lenny is gone.  Where is he?  Not in the house.  I went out in the lobby of the teatre.  He wasn’t there.  Then I had a hunch.  I went down the street, to the nearest bar.  There he was, in a double booth, with five shots of scotch lined up in front of him.  Nobody could face Jerry Robbins down, so he went to the bar.

And that’s the version that is played to this very day.


On an unrelated note, I found a new young composer that I’m just wild about: Timothy Andres.  He has a big premiere coming up by the LA Phil “Green Umbrella” series; clearly this kid is a major contender of the Muhlian variety.  Dude’s music and the presentation thereof is hot.  I do so hate it when anybody else has talent.