May 20, 2010
Peter Mowrey (left), associate professor of music at The College of Wooster, confers with the lead singer of Yes, Jon Anderson, at a recent rehearsal with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland.
WOOSTER, Ohio - In a "Roundabout" sort of way, Peter Mowrey is transforming rock music into orchestral classics. An associate professor of music at The College of Wooster and a longtime fan of the popular group Yes, Mowrey has been commissioned by lead singer Jon Anderson and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) of Cleveland to arrange several songs by this one-time super group from the '70s and '80s for the acclaimed "Rock the Orchestra" series.
"I kind of fell into this," explains Mowrey. "I first worked for CYO several years ago when Jack Gallagher (professor of music at Wooster) introduced me to Liza Grossman, the director. Since then I've done CYO arrangements for Jon Anderson, Donnie Iris, and others. CYO also performed seven of my arrangements with Styx at Blossom a few years ago, a concert that eventually made it to CD, DVD, and HD broadcast. But it's so thrilling to work with Jon this year, because Yes is my favorite rock band of all time."
Mowrey has been working on arrangements for six Yes tracks, including "All Good People," "Starship Trooper," and "Owner of a Lonely Heart." It takes him approximately 40 hours to arrange just one song, which makes this project particularly time consuming - but he's not complaining.
The process begins with writing a first draft, which Mowrey then sequences on his computer. The result is an MP3 version, which he sends to Anderson, who listens, critiques, and responds with feedback. "It becomes a collaborative process," says Mowrey. "Jon is very much involved." The ultimate objective is to create a piece that is lively but with orchestral qualities, a new interpretation that is still true to the spirit of the original-and, as Mowrey puts it, "something that doesn't sound like dead white-guy music."
Arranging rock for orchestra is "often done badly," says Mowrey, "because it is very difficult to capture that rock feel while still taking advantage of the orchestral possibilities." So in the case of his Yes arrangements, Mowrey relies heavily on a large battery of percussion, which he says really brings the music to life. "We don't want it to sound square or uptight," he says. "The students in the orchestra help us with that. They know how to pull it off and make it work."
How well it works will be determined by the audience when Anderson, who has returned to performing after a forced hiatus due to a severe asthma attack in 2008, returns to the Contemporary Youth Orchestra for a concert on Monday, May 24, at 7:30 p.m. in Cleveland's Severance Hall. That evening, Mowrey, Anderson, and the young musicians in the orchestra are hoping patrons will be singing, as they exit the music hall, the familiar riff, "I've seen all good people
turn their heads each day so satisfied I'm on my way."
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