By Anna Chandler
ARRANGING MUSIC for an orchestra takes Ricardo Ochoa and Jesse Monkman about 30 hours per minute of a piece. With each piece clocking in around four minutes, the duo have poured about 120 hours per song—that’s five straight days each—into one of the most-anticipated performances of 2016: Velvet Caravan and The Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra, together, on the Lucas stage.
“I’m excited about it,” says Ochoa carefully, “but I just realized it’s one of the biggest challenges I ever put myself in. I’m ready for it, but I have butterflies!”
On Saturday, Ochoa and Monkman’s diverse musical worlds collide. While many recognize the pair from Velvet Caravan, the beloved Savannah gypsy-jazz group, some may not realize that Ochoa and Monkman are leaders in the Savannah Philharmonic, as well. For this weekend’s performance, Velvet Caravan act as “soloists” backed by The Philharmonic. The ambitious Ochoa and Monkman not only arranged the entire program for each instrument of a full symphonic orchestra: they’re also performing.
With an eclectic mix of Velvet Caravan originals, Johnny Mercer tunes, Brahms, and Django Reinhardt classics, the performance also marks the debut of the first symphonic piece Ochoa’s ever written.
“I didn’t really realize that, until I was done and printing the music, that this is actually a big deal for a musician to have a piece,” he says. “I’m not a professional composer—I didn’t go to school to compose music—but I’ve always written music and studied the great composers and how they wrote music, so applying some of those techniques seemed fun to put some of my ideas to paper.”
A little over a week out from the performance, Ochoa has yet to hear the results of his and Monkman’s work—they won’t rehearse until a day or two before the concert, which is standard for a professional orchestra. It’s still a little nerve-wracking.
Thanks to computer programs that use midi sounds to replicate the tones of violins, flutes, and oboes, they have a concept of what the evening will sound like.
“They’re not the best-sounding things, but they are a good reference,” Ochoa says. “When we rehearse, we’ll do a playback of those charts on the computer through the loudspeakers, and we’re going to have Peter [Shannon], the conductor, get a better sense of us playing along with the recording, so he can hear the orchestra, look at his score, and make decisions as to where he’s going to want to manage the orchestra and manage the ensemble in general. It’s helpful to do it that way.”
“Both Jesse and Ricardo are very talented,” praises Shannon. “It’s absolutely an art and science to knowing which instruments are best combined. It’s something people spend their whole lives studying. Ricardo and Jesse have it all down, and it’s a testament to their incredible musical knowledge. They’ve put together a whole concert program with a symphony orchestra—even just thinking of it makes me tired!” he laughs. “But they’ve done it, and people are going to hear it.”
Shannon champions Ochoa’s ability to “run the gamut” between classical and pop music; in his eyes, their cross-genre stylings are a natural fit with the Philharmonic.
“Because they’re a part of the Orchestra, there’s already a real acceptance and want from the side of the Orchestra to make it successful,” he explains.
It’s an exciting experience from Shannon’s position, as well.
“As the conductor, you are the catalyst between show and orchestra,” he says. “And how much you involve the orchestra or involve the soloist to interact is always something that’s quasi-controlled by the conductor, but I like to leave that interaction quite free and open, as long as it doesn’t interfere with discipline. This one’s going to be a lot of fun—I can sense there’s going to be a good dialogue between the ‘band,’ as it were, and the guys.”
Shannon and Ochoa encourage both audiences—the pop-loving folks who follow Velvet Caravan and classical fans—to check out this one-of-a-kind experience.
“I think most people don’t allow themselves—and I use those words purposely—to have philharmonic experiences, or orchestral experiences,” Shannon muses. “They go see a band or rock group, they’re people who are interested in music and just like to use their ears for enjoyment. They’ll be hard-pushed to listen to any concert of a symphony orchestra. But when they come together, you’re not listening to four guys who play guitars and a singer: you’re listening to 75, up to 90 people playing music. And it’s a very special experience.”
Ochoa looks forward to sharing the night with his non-Philharmonic bandmates.
“[Bassist] Eric Dunn is coming from his tradition of Southern Americana, playing with The Train Wrecks, to two years later being in front of an orchestra…he is excited,” Ochoa shares. “And, of course, Sasha [Strunjas, guitar] is the same way: he’s been in the world of gypsy jazz for so many years now. Sitting there in front of the orchestra, yeah, we’re all in shock in different ways, but as much as I’ve played with orchestras my entire life, this is something very different and very special.”
“These are the two loves of my life in music,” Ochoa says of the Philharmonic and Velvet Caravan. “It’s going to be an emotional concert.”