In the year 2000, I received a call from Dick Bakker, the conductor and music director of the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. I was asked to perform with the orchestra at a jazz festival in the city of Roosendaal. The problem was I had no formal scores written for such a unique, sixty-piece ensemble. But, as fortune would have it, I was to perform with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra around the same time period.
The MSO had sent one of their premier orchestrators to Portland to confer with me regarding scores. I had spent two days articulating my wants and needs, trusting the orchestrator understood and felt as much passion for the music as I did. It seemed the answer to the problem of having no scores for the Metrople Orchestra was miraculously solved with the old adage of killing two birds with one stone. Not so, by a long shot, I would discover soon enough.
After a twenty-hour travel day, Tricia and I arrived in Hilversum, home to the Metropole Orchestra, nine days prior to the scheduled concert. It was about noon. Time adjusting, then, a four-day rehearsal was on the agenda. I freshened up a little and anxiously headed straight to the Metropole complex that same afternoon to meet with Dick Bakker and discuss the scores and other aspects of the coming performance. He looked estranged, eyes cast to the ground, a little down in the mouth, as we shook hands, Mr. Bakker looking like the bearer of bad tidings.
The scores had been sent from Montreal a few days earlier. Dick had had the time to mull over them, and came to a quick conclusion.
“The charts written in Montreal simply won’t do,” he lamented, as soon as our hands parted. I was shocked, having been assured by the Montreal arranger the scores would be adaptable to both orchestra and big band format. “Not so,” Dick insisted.
The conversation quickly became testy, ending with Dick contending the concert would have to be cancelled. I have always been a fusspot—truth be told, agonizingly maniacal—regarding music details, but cancelling a sold-out concert, after all the preparation and paces I had put myself and others through seemed very wrong to me.
My hackles rose, as I retorted, “No way, Mr. Bakker. . . we will surely find ourselves caught in a legal tangle if you persist upon cancelling.”
The room quieted for a few pregnant moments. The barometer was on the edge of bursting; lightning and thunder about to break through the lathe and plaster ceiling. But our serious intentions, stiff body language, and narrowed eyes rendered the inclement weather between us calm and hushed—a sort of détente. Like two peace negotiators, we looked through the scores together. I clearly began to see his point. The charts were indeed unfit for the Metropole Orchestra.
There is nothing like a dead end, or being backed against a wall to have a man throw both his arms up and die—or, to look for any object, however small or blunt to sharpen to a point and weaponize, thereby improving his prospects in a dire situation. I opted for the second.
“Look at these recent double-stave piano scores I’ve written, Dick,” I said, like a trial lawyer having just discovered some new admissible evidence. I dug into my suitcase full of scores then lay near twenty on Dick Bakker’s desk.
“They look good, “ he admitted through his rectangle spectacles, as he gave them a quick once-over. Like playing peek-a-boo, back and forth, he peered into the pages, then over his silver rims and straight into my eyes again and again, wondering where I was going with this.
“Mr. Bakker, put me with four of the best Dutch orchestrators you know. I will use my double-stave charts as a foundation, and apply these notes to the various orchestral parts. We have four days till rehearsal. I will sit with the orchestrators, twenty-four a day if necessary to complete these. We will have ten done, ten great ones done, by the morning of the first rehearsal. . . I promise.”
It was some marathon; running from one arranger to the next, from one end of the Netherlands to the other, explaining my piano scores, how I saw them applied to big band, what my preferred instrumentation for every section was, including solos. A small country never seemed so vast.
It was the morning of the first rehearsal. Dick was rather nervous, wringing his hands, wondering what kind of quicksand he had just driven his orchestra into. The ten conductor’s scores now sat on his podium.
“Gino,” Dick whispered, hoping no one would hear, “there are no dynamic markings. No tempos set. We have never played these scores, what’s more, I have never heard most of these songs before.”
This, I soon grew to love most about the man:
“Would you kindly conduct the orchestra, seeing as you might know how the music is supposed to go. . .because frankly, I have no clue.”
I was like a cowboy at a ‘Boot Barn’. I knew these arrangements were really good, but just as importantly, I ‘knew’ these arrangements like the back of my hand. All’s I needed to do was show sixty puzzled people and a worried doubting Thomas how good they really were.
Needless to say, my conducting skills were, and remain highly untypical, perhaps downright unwieldy to the sitting musician accustomed to the normal conductor holding a wooden baton. (Once, I was accused of looking like a drowning man, to which I responded, drowning only in the music)
There I was: pointing, pounding, waving, raising my fist to the heavens, calling for the sixty to hammer away and grasp what the charts were supposed to sound like. Soon, the room smiled big. I did not care much that my unorthodox conducting might have been one of the reasons. The Metropole was grooving hard. It sounded and felt fantastic.
Like a court stenographer, Dick quickly noted dynamic markings, and tempo changes with almost every measure that whizzed by during the first three days, scrawling notes on his conductor’s score as fast as he could.
Each day of rehearsal was better than the last. On the final day I began singing, as Dick took back control of the podium.
The Roosendaal concert was seamless. Running without a single hitch, as if every note had been cooked, simmered and chilled to perfection—all according to plan. As I sang before the rocking sixty-piece band, exchanging smiles with Dick as he was slicing the air with his wooden baton like a swordsman wielding a saber, I looked to the audience before me, and thought to myself, “Life is messy. . . but it’s good.”