Between teaching and performing with the Spokane Symphony, David Armstrong, assistant principal second violin, has spent his limited free time pursuing orchestral arrangement and composition, a musical hobby dating back to his college days.
On Saturday, the audience has an opportunity to hear Armstrong’s most recent work in collaboration with Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, the punk-jazz, neo-swing group based in Eugene, Oregon, who are performing at Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.
“I’ve played in string quartets since I was in high school, and so getting to compose and then play music in a string quartet that wasn’t specifically written for string quartet, songs that I really enjoyed that I’d always wanted to play … that has always been one of my favorite things to do,” Armstrong said.
Learning how to arrange and compose allowed Armstrong the freedom to play music that hadn’t been written for any ensemble he wanted, but entering the professional world of music restricted the time he could set aside for his favored hobby.
“It was more or less a hobby for quite a few years,” Armstrong said. “I hadn’t had the time, but now getting to do what I saw as a hobby [become] an integrated part of my career is such a great opportunity.”
This isn’t the first time Armstrong has been able to mix his hobby into his day job. Former Spokane Symphony music director Eckart Preu frequently programmed Armstrong’s compositions for “Symphony on the Edge” concerts. Most recently, concertmaster Mateusz Wolski commissioned several arrangements and compositions for the symphony’s “M Show” series.
“When Mateusz was developing the idea for the ‘M Show,’ he knew about my compositions and asked if I wanted to do some work for that,” Armstrong said. “Anything that needed to be written for the ensemble he had me do.”
Armstrong’s long history of creating arrangements for the symphony made him an obvious choice when plans for a collaborative concert with Cherry Poppin’ Daddies began to form.
Daddies lead vocalist and principal guitarist Steve Perry curated the setlist and advised Armstrong during the arranging process, working together to allow the orchestral backing to elaborate on each story-piece, adding a depth otherwise lacking.
“For this concert, I arranged 11 songs, about 45 minutes of music. Each of the songs Steve chose tells a story, and he felt like that kind of song would really fit well with the symphony,” Armstrong said. “In my mind, the symphony can work with everything, and I think it works really well with what Steve chose for this because the set covers such a wide range of music.”
Arranging the orchestral additions took months to complete, beginning last April and ending even as we spoke on Tuesday over the phone: “I’m just finishing off the final score for the conductor,” Armstrong laughed.
“I started out listening to their studio recordings … and going over the charts for their horns section: saxophones, trumpets, trombones. From there, I would listen to the recordings and write out any of the other parts that they didn’t have written music for,” Armstrong said.
In most cases, he would begin by transcribing the music from each recording, but his method varied with the work at hand.
“Each song worked in different ways. Often I’d start by filling in some strings … in other songs, I’d get an idea of what I wanted to do with the wind or brass instruments first to help fill in a counter melody. It varied from song to song, but it was mainly a matter of supporting the harmonies in the band, sometimes interjecting a little bit of extra counterpoint here and there in the songs.”
The end result is an expansion of the existing music, either doubling or adding voices to what is already there, sometimes even adding melodic material underneath the existing melodies.
“The difference in this arranging process is fitting the orchestra into something already existing,” Armstrong said. “All the work I’ve done up until now has been creating something original for orchestra, or taking an existing piece and reducing it down, or writing a cover of an existing piece. But here I’m adding onto an already completed work.”
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies plan to take Armstrong’s arrangements with them to future symphony collaborations in cities across the country.
“This is a sort of jumping-off point for them,” Armstrong said. “They’re looking to start performing more with different orchestras, and these are the charts that they’ll take when they go and perform in other places.”
Armstrong has plans to compose and arrange for the Spokane Symphony in the future and is already working on something exciting for next season.
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