Andrei Strizek

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New Bacharach arrangement

I recently wrote an arrangement of Burt Bacharach & Hal David's "A House Is Not A Home," to be performed by Steven Cuevas at Broadway Barkada's annual So This Is Love Valentine's Day concert. I can't remember exactly how we decided that he should sing this song or that I should arrange it; I think it was one of those things where we were talking about it enough that it just became assumed that I would write this song for him.

As is my usual m.o., I procrastinated a lot and didn't finish the song until 2 days before the performance. (In my defense, it was a difficult song for me to get my head and ears around, so it took longer than usual. And I was being lazy.) Between the lateness of this song and all of the other work that Steven was doing as the music director/pianist/arranger for that evening's concert, we decided that I should play piano for him. (Thus marking - can you believe it - the first time I played piano publicly in New York City.)

Below is an excerpt of Steven & I performing the song last week, at the Cutting Room in NYC. We are planning on making a new recording in the very near future, which I will also post here.

I've long felt that this is one of the weirdest - but also prettiest and most heartfelt - of Bacharach's popular songs. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do something different from the other versions out there: Dionne Warwick, Barbra Streisand, Glee ... My arrangement ended up being influenced by Lawrence Hobgood's arrangement on Kurt Elling's 1619 Broadway album. My version, though, should be treated more like a lied and less as an opportunity for improvisation or riffing. I usually allow for some liberties in my pop arrangements. That's the style, and the singer and rhythm section should have that flexibility. Here, though, I want things performed as they are. I took care to get the exact rhythms and pitches (and yes - I know they differ from the original melody.) As I mentioned above, the song was tricky for me to figure out. The phrasing is uneven - more than usual as far as Bacharach is concerned - and the melody is odd. The harmonic structure itself isn't that different or difficult, but I wanted to make sure the chord's extensions and substitutions throughout were just right.

The arrangement is available to download. It gets a little high towards the end, after the key change. If you want, I would gladly transpose the song for you. As always, I would enjoy hearing from you if you perform this at some point.

Sondheim's "Loving You" for a cappella choir

I was asked to arrange "Loving You" in early 2014, for inclusion at the First Annual Sondheimas celebration on March 22d. David Levy was organizing a birthday celebration for Stephen Sondheim to be held at Broadway’s supper club, 54 Below. Without much thought, I said yes. I mean - David is a good friend, I’d have the opportunity for an arrangement of mine to be performed at 54 Below, and the timing worked out perfectly that I would be able to attend on my spring break visit.

And then I promptly forgot about it.

Until around the middle of February, that is, when David checked in on my progress. I smiled, said it was coming along, and then I started working on this arrangement. "Loving You" is such a simple song that I knew immediately my arrangement wouldn’t be flashy. It was not my intent to add much that wasn’t already written by Sondheim; I wanted it to be almost understated, to let the words and their meaning, the harmonies, the melody, be at the forefront.

I toyed with the idea of including a cello and a piano part, but I liked the sound and intimacy of a small a cappella choir instead. Part of me wants to write a cello part, but I haven’t had the drive. I like the sound of this as it is.

Sometime during this process I asked David how he was planning on ending the Sondheimas celebration. I was wondering if he was going to use “Sunday,” which is cliché but also a great ending. His reply: “No! We’re ending with your arrangement!” That meant, of course, I’d have to sit through the entire presentation on edge, waiting to hear a fine choir assembled for this occasion sing my arrangement.

Later in the spring, I asked my quite large class of musical theatre students if they would be willing to learn and perform this at our cabaret that we always do at the end of the semester. They did a great job with it, and we barely had any rehearsal time! It was exciting to hear the song again, and to be able to conduct it this time.

I’ve uploaded the PDF to my Arrangements page. It’s available there as a free download. I would enjoy hearing from you if you perform the piece. It needs, at minimum, 8 singers (2 per part), but as you can see in the video above, a larger choir is possible. The piano part is included to help during rehearsals; it can be utilized during a performance if necessary, but I prefer it sung a cappella. And watch out for that key change! It can be a little tricky.

Thank you to David, Jose, Steven, and several others as listed on the PDF for their support and help with this arrangement.

Frank Ocean's Television Debut

This Is Not a One Man Cult

Music is miraculous in that one can say everything in such a way that those in the know can understand it all, and yet one’s own secrets, those which one will not even admit to oneself, remain undivulged.” – Arnold Schoenberg

(Video no longer available)

It was by chance that I had the TV on late Monday night and caught the television debut of hip-hop artist Frank Ocean. Only half-paying attention, I heard Jimmy Fallon introduce his musical guest. I didn’t have time to process the name before the opening organ chords and the plaintive voice of a scrawny 24 year old drew my rapt attention for the next four minutes. On screen was a man expressing his love for another man – the same man who made news last week for the very same thing.

The blogosphere exploded last week when Frank Ocean posted a note on his Tumblr telling a story, from when he was 19 years old, about the love he felt for close friend. This was big news in the stereotypical masculine and somewhat misogynist hip-hop culture (a culture that Frank Ocean has contributed to in the past). And now, we were given the opportunity to hear the words direct from Ocean himself, singing “Bad Religion” in what was apparently a last-minute move by Fallon’s producers.

Image via Wikimedia CommonsBut is that what the performance of “Bad Religion” was about? Most of what I’ve read says that it was. I’m not so sure. Granted, the signs are hard to miss, from Ocean “coming out” last week (he never actually said that he’s gay) to the masculine pronouns. But “Bad Religion” is more than a gay love story. It’s about unrequited love, a near-universal emotion found in stories from Greek mythology to Nicholas Sparks movies.

Maybe we should be ecstatic that we heard a young guy declare, “I could never make him love me.” It’s a sentence that, as a gay man, I can relate to, as I’m sure countless other gay men and straight women can. But unreciprocated love isn’t just an emotion felt by gays or women; the pronouns in this song don’t matter. The universality of the message, the passion of the his singing – the melding of a blues and gospel confessional with contemporary hip-hop – that’s what made Ocean’s performance so noteworthy.

I know there are people who will disagree with me. Hell, there’s even a part of me that wants to exclaim, “Yes! A gay hip-hop artist singing about it on television!” and be done with it, QED. It’s a big moment for our nation and culture. But if we can look past the heteronormativeness in nearly every other love song ever written, we can look past the homosexual subtext of “Bad Religion.” We need to. Our society is no longer one where should have strict divides between sexuality, race, or any other cultural markers.

I can’t predict the future or fight cynicism. Maybe Ocean “came out” last week to generate buzz for his album; it’s likely the album won’t remain on top of the iTunes charts for much longer. But I think that on Monday night we saw the debut of an artist breaking away from his band and from behind the scenes of other artists, and reaching out by telling a story full of raw emotion. Doing so he pulled us into his world, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need music performances to do. Am I naïve enough to think that this performance alone will change our perceptions of homosexuality? No. But it was still a great moment to witness.

Happy Birthday, Percy Grainger!

via Wikimedia CommonsAustralian-born composer Percy Aldridge Grainger was born on July 8, 1882. For a composer, performer and folk-song collector who had a place of importance and popularity during his lifetime, his stature has lessened in the intervening years.

Unless, that is, you're in the field of wind bands. Grainger holds a special place in the hearts of wind band conductors and performers. I was first introduced to him, as are many people, at a young age by playing his Irish Tune from County Derry (commonly known as "Danny Boy" or "Londonderry Air"). (The history on this tune is long and still somewhat mysterious, but the words for "Danny Boy" were written after Grainger first found this folk song and starting writing is multitude of settings of it.) As a euphonium player (now on hiatus), how could I not love this piece? The euphonium part has the great melody in the beginning and the countermelody towards the end. Finally: a piece that is more than just boom-chicks!

His compositions span from original lyrical tunes to highly chromatic melodies and harmonies, from simple folk-song settings to the creation of new folk songs. His Lincolnshire Posy is widely regarded as one of the top 5 pieces ever composed for wind bands. He made concert piano settings of several Gershwin tunes. He was friends with Grieg and Delius, toured the globe as a concert pianists, and was a pioneer with using electronics in music and with "free" music. Ever the oddball, much as been written about his non-musical life, including his relationship with his mother.

Personality and quirks aside, I enjoy so much of Grainger's music. His folk song settings are unique and inventive. And though the popular setting of Irish Tune holds a special place in my heart, my favorite setting is his highly chromatic version, heard below in a version for wind band (performed by the Cincinatti Conservatory of Music):

Related links:

July 4th Playlist

Happy Independence Day!

To help celebrate your July 4th:

"The Egg" from 1776

America the Beautiful arr. Carmen Dragon (guaranteed to get audiences on their feet)

Final movement (V. Allegro molto vivace) from Charles Ives' Symphony No. 2

When Jesus Wept by William Schuman (New England Triptych, mvt 2, based on William Billings' hymn)

Chester by William Schuman (New England Triptych, mvt 3, based on William Billings' hymn)

And, finally, John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever

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