The Sarasota Orchestra is preparing for a set of Beatles tunes, a change of pace from a steady diet of Brahms and Beethoven.
In any other arena, they’re the undisputed masters of their craft. But in the field of classical music — a genre dominated by legends like Beethoven, Bach and Mozart — The Beatles are fighting for a place in the orchestra pit.
The Sarasota Orchestra will take on the work of The Beatles next week as part of its seasonal pops program, and it will be backing a band that plays selections that range from all over the Fab Four canon. There’s a song from 1963 — the cover version of “Twist and Shout” — and a couple of tracks from “Get Back,” the final album released by The Beatles in 1970.
It’s a diversion of sorts for the players, who are more accustomed to symphonies and concertos. But that’s fun for them, and they hope it will be fun for their audience too.
“I love how the songs change from one to the next to the next,” says violinist Amanda Nix. “We’ve all been trained in Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart. You know how those styles are, but for The Beatles, they have so many different styles. They have so many different ideas, and if you played them all the same, you wouldn’t really be getting the true scope of The Beatles.”
Nix, who has been playing for the Sarasota Orchestra since 2017, says she didn’t really listen to The Beatles growing up.
They were her parents’ music, and sometimes her dad would pull out a guitar and play their songs.
But when she did get around to exploring their catalogue, she was surprised the songs all came from the same band.
Bass clarinet player Calvin Falwell comes to the material from a slightly different perspective. He said he grew up poring over his parents’ vinyl collection and wearing out The Beatles albums.
Falwell played bass in a rock 'n' roll band before committing full-time to a career in the orchestra, and he said that quality music will sound good in whatever way you play it.
“No matter what combination of instruments, the song is still going to be good,” he says of top level pop craftsmanship. “It’s the same paint. You’re just using it in a different way. It’s different shades of Bob Ross tapestries depending on what instruments you’re using.”
Falwell previously played with the Orlando Philharmonic, and they played a performance with Duran Duran.
He also said he’s heard the San Francisco Symphony playing with Metallica, and he thinks there’s many bands who could shine with a full orchestral treatment.
Falwell mentioned Pink Floyd and the Beach Boys as artists who he’d like to play in the orchestra, and he said he has no doubt that The Beatles will be played decades into the future.
“Charles Mingus was first and foremost a hard bebop musician,” says Falwell, “But he wanted all of his musicians in his band to be well versed in the blues and in swing.
"His mindset was, ‘If it was good then, it’s good now.’ With pop music historians and music appreciation classes, kids are going to be learning about The Beatles until the end of time.”
Beyond the orchestra, the cast for the Revolution shows will include the following: Vocalists Paul Loren and Colin Smith, drummer and vocalist Zach Jones, guitarist and vocalist Diego Navaira, bassist Brian Killeen and keyboard player Andy Roninson.
Both Falwell and Nix referenced the show "Bridgerton," a drama that takes contemporary music and adds strings to give it more of an orchestra type of treatment. It’s an approach that basically mirrors Falwell’s musical education as a young man who loved rock 'n' roll.
“I would hear orchestras and I would hear instruments that are not deemed pop music instruments by the mainstream,” he said. “I would think, ‘This is really cool.’ These are other textures being used, and as I was entering into middle school band, I would think, ‘I can do this on the clarinet. I don’t have to play in a rock band. I can play in an orchestra.’”
For Nix, who will be playing on nearly every song in The Beatles set list, it’s a challenge not necessarily to learn the music but to play it in the signature for which it’s accustomed.
Even the notation system — which tells the musicians how to articulate and how long to hold the note — cannot properly be translated from one genre to the other in this case.
And while that’s a challenge, says Nix, it’s up to the musicians to find a way to overcome it, to play it like they’ve played it 1,000 times even if they’ve only played it once or twice.
“People don’t just listen with their ears,” she says. “They listen with their eyes. Especially on a pop show. If we’re all sitting there pouting because we’re playing things we don’t like, then the audience feels that and they don’t get that joy to toe-tap. They don’t get that sense of fun.”
Nix plays a violin that was made in 1884 — 57 years before Paul McCartney's birth — and she gained great experience by playing in the touring production of Beauty and the Beast. In that role, she played the same songs over 500 times … and they never got old.
And whether you’re playing the same songs or new ones, she says, the challenge is to stay in the moment and perform them as if you’re performing for the first time.
Nix said that many of the people she’s told about The Beatles show are excited, and if she encounters someone who isn’t really interested, she has some all-purpose advice for anyone who might be listening.
“Don’t put yourself in a box of things you like and don’t like,” she says. “I’ve invited so many people to concerts and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t like that.’ Well, how do you know?
"Have you ever seen it? I’m not a huge fan of country, but if someone is like, ‘Hey, come to this concert,’ I would find something I liked about it. That’s a fun night. Come to anything that you might be kind of interested in. And bring a friend. Bring someone who’s never been because they don’t know what they’re missing.”
Neither Nix nor Falwell has watched "Get Back," the recent expanded documentary of The Beatles’ final days, but Nix says she’d like to explore it at some point.
Falwell, who started playing bass and clarinet at age 10 or 11, said that McCartney was one of his influences.
Falwell enjoys playing pop shows because he gets to play the same notes on the bass clarinet that he would on a bass, and like Nix, he hopes that some classical exposure to The Beatles will lend the audience an even greater perspective on the music the orchestra normally plays.
“The majority of our pops show are light classics, the Best of Broadway or Broadway Divas. Or maybe it’s some kind of big band or Frank Sinatra,” he said. “That’s great, don’t get me wrong. But people need to see that the orchestra can rock.
"If this is the gateway for them, if they enjoy this, just realize that we played a Beethoven 7th concert at the beginning of the season that is just as exhilarating as any rock concert. Like an edge of the seat experience. I think that people are kidding themselves if they don’t realize how metal Mahler or Beethoven can be.”
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