Berklee-trained arranger and conductor Brent Havens founded Windborne Productions Inc. in 1990, and has since written music for television, film and orchestras the world over, including 11 symphonic rock programs—one of which, The Music of Led Zeppelin, collaborated with Edmonton’s own symphony orchestra earlier this year.
Brent talks about how the symphonic rock programs came to be, and the challenges he faces when tackling such grand projects.
What inspired you to create these symphony rock shows?
Near where I live in Virginia there was a promoter and orchestra executive who were trying to come up with a way to bring new and different audiences to see orchestra concerts and someone suggested doing classic rock music. Their initial idea was to have just an orchestra playing some classic rock music. Zeppelin was the first idea thrown out and when I talked to them about their idea, I didn’t think having an orchestra performing classic rock songs by themselves really made sense. I didn’t feel like Zep fans would be interested in hearing an orchestra-only version of the songs that they love, so my idea was to take the two idioms and have them work together. I suggested getting a great lead singer, studio musicians to make up the band and a full orchestra surrounding the band and singer and present those songs in a whole new way. So I took it and ran with it and it works quite well.
When Windborne’s first symphony rock program was introduced in ‘95—The Music of Led Zeppelin—how was it received?
The audience seemed to love it. When we brought Randy Jackson (from Zebra) on board to sing the show it exploded and the audience went nuts. We performed the show in a small 1,000-seat hall and it sold out in a couple of days. We were stunned at their reaction to it.
What factors are considered when it comes to picking which band and songs to base a rock program on?
There are a great number of factors that I consider before moving forward with a new show, and those factors have changed over the 20 years that we have been doing the shows. First and foremost, I look at total U.S. sales of that group’s albums over the years. There’s a minimum number of U.S. sales that I require to be considered. Next, I determine if their catalogue is large enough to support a 2-hour show, so you won’t see any one or two hit wonders in our shows. I then listen to most of their catalogue and determine if I think their music will work with and be supported by a full orchestra. We now do more than just classic rock. We are doing what I consider to be “legend” of music over the years—artists like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston… both of which fit very well within our matrix for determining if they will fit with an orchestra. So it’s a drawn out process and a lot of thought and research goes into deciding what group’s music we should perform.
What’s it like combining a full rock band with symphonic arrangements? What challenges come up, if any?
Some of the challenges that we face are purely technical and others are purely musical. On the musical side, it sometimes becomes difficult to write a show that has music that has only three or four chords in the entire song. I want my charts to be both interesting for the audience and interesting for the artists on stage, including the orchestra. I don’t want to write material that doesn’t move people or is just a bunch of notes, but has some substance that moves the song along and draws the audience into it. That’s a pretty big challenge sometimes. On the technical side, it’s always a challenge to take an electrified full rock band with a live drummer and not have the band bury the orchestra in the mix. That balance is very difficult and I have a wonderful team of engineers who are adept at bringing out the orchestra in the midst of those guitars and drummer. But it’s a challenge that we’ve been dealing with for 20 years, so we have some experience to draw on in making it work for the audiences.
Windborne has done shows for such huge acts in world-renowned venues. What’s it like working alongside smaller, local orchestras? Does the dynamic change?
Surprisingly, it’s nearly the same the world over. The musicians have all studied at music schools and universities and have worked for decades to get where they are in their careers. Whether the musicians are in a small local professional orchestra or some of the world’s greatest orchestras, they all have the same drive for their music and determination to make great music. When we come into their town and they see the response that the audience brings to the halls, they can’t help but love the fact that they are performing great music, whether it be classical, jazz, rock, country or any other type of music that audiences want to hear. That’s what music is all about—audiences enjoying what you’re providing—and it’s wonderful to see.
You can check Windborne’s latest symphonic rock program—The Music of Pink Floyd—at the Winspear Centre on September 29th and 30th.