By Jim Berkenstock, Artistic Director, Midsummer’s Music
I imagine the title of our upcoming program creates a few questions among our followers. Who are these guys? And why? Those quite familiar with Midsummer’s Music know that Will Healy is our gifted composer-in-residence who has made quite a splash in our last two seasons with his works written especially for us. Eric Lewis is well known among those who attend Northern Sky Theater, concerts at Woodwalk Gallery, and other venues for his exciting virtuosity as a banjo, guitar, mandolin player, and occasional singer.
So, what’s the connection? Well, when we auditioned Will Healy for his position as our composer-in-residence, we came to realize that he is not only a trained composer who went through the Juilliard program receiving both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in composition, but he also has another side. He is founder and artistic director of Shouthouse, “a collective of hip-hop, jazz, and classical musicians,” that has appeared at the Kennedy Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Le Poisson Rouge. Will is as comfortable improvising at the piano as he is performing the Bach Goldberg Variations, and he works in both realms frequently.
We got to know Eric when he was looking to expand his ensemble with strings for concerts at Woodwalk Gallery several years ago. He had a friend make some arrangements of his pieces with string quartet, so teaming up with the Griffon String Quartet – sponsored by Midsummer’s Music – made sense. The collaboration was a big success and has continued to the point that we will celebrate a new album featuring Eric and the Griffon with a performance on September 9th at Northern Sky’s Gould Theater. Getting to know Eric in this way naturally led to the “what if” question of putting these two diverse talents on stage together. After some Zoom conferences, we began to get an idea of what that might look like.
When I say “idea,” that’s pretty accurate. Normally, as Artistic Director, I choose the works on the program, and they are performed in a somewhat predictable fashion based on the printed music we use. In this case, that is true with only part of the program. The rest, which will involve a degree of improvisation, will materialize in the rehearsals leading up to the performances and in the performances themselves. Does that make me a bit nervous? YES! But it is also exciting, and I take great comfort in knowing how creative, how capable, and how adaptive these great artists are. It will be fun to see how they feed off of one another.
Also on the program is violinist George Meyer, a colleague and friend of Will’s who will join Will in several movements from one of the Bach Violin Sonatas, but George will also join Will in some of their own creations like “Good for You,” “Let the Record Show” (world premiere), and “Squirrel Holster.” On the second half we will hear Will’s commissioned Piano Quartet entitled “Root Position,” and a movement of George’s Trio for Two Violins and Piano. George comes by his talent naturally. His father is the acclaimed classical/jazz bassist, Edgar Meyer.
An undercurrent of the program is the music of J.S. Bach. After Will and George begin the program with movements from the Sonata, Eric will perform the Bourée from Bach’s Suite in E Minor. Will’s work, “Root Position,” also has an underlying Bach inspiration. In between, however, Eric will provide a set of his favorites like “Katy Hopkins” and “Off to Lambeau,” some of which will involve our strings. Eric’s set that concludes the second half will involve who knows what. Time will tell, but it will be a revelation, I am sure.
When we were talking about who would be involved, Eric wanted to know if our bass player, Drew Banzhaf, would be comfortable improvising. I said I thought he would but that I would check. Drew’s response was, “Let’s do it.” Then we got talking about what form the music would be in for the musicians, because jazz notation is quite different from regular music notation. I thought that Drew and Will would be okay with that, but when we talked to Eric, he said, “we generally use Nashville Number Charts.” I asked him to send me a sample, which I forwarded to Drew. I lived in Nashville for quite a time and never saw anything like this, and Drew hadn’t either. We will have something everyone can decipher for the concert, but at times it seems like we are dealing with a musical United Nations.
The day after this program, we do Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Jeannie Yu. Beethoven was a fantastic improviser. I can’t help but think he would love Eric and Will’s program. We hope you will take in both. There are only two performances of Eric Lewis Meets Will Healy, and ticket sales are brisk, so make your reservations now. Thursday, July 13, 7:00pm at Kress Pavilion, Egg Harbor, and Friday, July 14, 7:00pm at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay. Please call 920-854-7088 or visit www.midsummersmusic.com for tickets and further information. This promises to be the much-talked-about event of the season. You don’t want to hear about how special it was from someone else. Please make your reservations now.