Renée Fleming sings Wayne Shorter’s premiere thanks to Sibelius

The beautiful lobby of Powell Hall, St. Louis (courtesy mastahanky on Flickr)

A few weeks ago, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra played the opening gala concert of the 2010/2011 season at Powell Hall in St. Louis, Missouri. The main attraction was American soprano Renée Fleming, who would be singing some crowd-pleasing, favourite arias, ideal for a high-profile fundraising concert.

However, this year’s gala concert would also feature a world premiere of a new work written for Fleming by jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, based on Maya Angelou’s poem, The Rock Cried Out To Us Today, and to find out how this work came to fruition, and the part Sibelius played, I talked with music editor, copyist and orchestrator Ken Gruberman about the project.

Ken takes up the story. “It turns out that Renée and Wayne Shorter had been kicking an idea around for a decade, of having Wayne write a piece for her and symphony orchestra based on the poem Maya Angelou wrote for Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1992. After ten years, both agreed it was time to do it, and so work on Aurora began in earnest a few months ago.”

Wayne Shorter is an international jazz legend who has played with everyone from Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock to Sting. At 77, Wayne as a composer is mostly self-taught, and writes scores with pen and ink. He eschews technology of any kind and writes what he hears in his head.

“In late August,” Ken continues, “I was called to Wayne’s home and shown the project. He explained that Renée had wanted it in July but that he had been on tour and was only now finalizing the score. And now time was running short; the performance was set for October 2nd, with two rehearsals on September 30th and October 1st. And here we were in the last week of August with no score!”

Ken is no stranger to tight deadlines in his work: he has worked on countless film and TV projects, including the multi-award winning HBO miniseries John Adams, where there is never enough time to make a job truly comfortable. Nevertheless, there was much to be done to be ready for the first rehearsal in just a few weeks time.

“The first hurdle?” muses Ken, “Get the piano reduction of the score Wayne had written into Sibelius, so that I could then export an audio version and send it to Renée as soon as possible. Renée is an amazing sight reader of music, but this score was so rhythmically and harmonically dense that she and her accompanist needed to hear it first before deciding on a course of action regarding its length. So my friend Bob Joles and I spent four days creating one 3-line part for Renée. Keep in mind this was, at the time, a 385 measure piece, much of it in 6/4, 7/4 and 9/4 meters, with lots of notes in every bar; often 16ths and 32nds. With a 42-stave score!”

When Renée received the score, given her other commitments in the intervening weeks, she wisely decided to focus on just half of the piece in order to do it justice on its premiere.

“At one point, when we were doing the ‘original’ edit of only bars 1 through 115,” says Ken, “the team was myself, my friend Bob Joles and our mutual friend Barbara Watts. Then, while I was in Connecticut less than two weeks before the completion of the project, things changed and now we were faced with an additional 100 measures. There was no way the three of us could accomplish this, so I approached Booker White, the music prep supervisor at Disney Studios, and asked if he and his team could join us. Another miracle: Booker agreed, as they were off that week. Our team of three soon became a team of 10 to 12.”

With Ken, Bob, Barbara and Booker and his team all working quickly in Sibelius, things were going to be tight, but Ken now felt confident that the project would be finished on time.

“I was able to complete the project on September 26th… one hour before leaving for Minnesota for another project! This was also beneficial to the St. Louis people, as their key players had been requesting advance copies of the various parts so they could start practicing ahead of time. I was able to send everyone PDFs of the parts and the scores before leaving, and the librarians in St. Louis completed the printing and binding tasks in plenty of time.”

Ken is happy to report that the concert, and the piece, had been an unqualified success, and he also says that he couldn’t have completed this project on time without Sibelius. “There is no doubt in my mind that it was Sibelius that allowed me to complete the project in time, and with the degree of accuracy that it had. I was able to keep working myself while coordinating the other team members on the project, because Sibelius makes it so easy to integrate others’ work into the master score. And with features like Magnetic Layout and Sibelius’ superior playback capabilities, I was able to format and proof-read in a fraction of the time it used to take. From the very start to the very end, Sibelius saved my career, and my reputation!”

Thanks very much to Ken for taking the time to share this story! If you’d like to get in touch with Ken, you can contact him at his company Quill Music by email. For more information on the St. Louis Symphony, check out their web site.

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