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For Emmy-Nominated Music Directors, There’s Little Room for Error

Of the five music categories in the Primetime Emmy Awards, the music direction category seems to be the least understood outside music circles. And yet the stakes couldn’t be higher, with four of the six nominees live broadcasts.

In the case of NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!,” music director and first-time nominee David Chase (not to be confused with “The Sopranos” creator), says, “the biggest job is trying to have a point of view about the whole thing — to capture the essence of Rodgers and Hammerstein as channeled through (original Broadway orchestrator) Robert Russell Bennett and (film arranger-adapter) Irwin Kostal. It felt like a direct descendent of those, but had a freshness and originality of its own.”

William Ross offers a more all-encompassing response when asked about the task. A music director, he says, is “the person responsible for the planning, organization, scheduling and realization of the musical aspects of a performance or an event.”

Ross should know; he has been music director for the Academy Awards five times and won three Emmys. He’s nominated twice this year, for the Oscar telecast and PBS’ “Barbra Streisand: Back to Brooklyn.” Both involved “endless meetings, emails and conference calls” in the months leading up to their live presentations. Ross wrote and supervised arrangements and conducted both shows with 60-piece orchestras.

If there’s a through line that affects all music directors, it’s the budget, which can make or break a show. “The budget informs and affects every element,” Ross says.

For “The Sound of Music Live!,” Chase started six months before the Dec. 5 airdate, participating in the casting, researching every version of the production, arranging new material, conducting the orchestra and working closely with the stars.

And on the night of air, Chase says, “when the nuns were singing a capella, I was just off camera, wearing white gloves (so the performers could see his hands despite the lights), conducting.” Colleagues were cueing other performers or, in one case, ready to play piano in case something went wrong with the pre-recorded tracks.

If a good deal of music heard on the Tonys is pre-recorded, the show itself airs live, accompanied by an orchestra at Radio City Music Hall.

Jamie Lawrence, who with his father, Elliot, was music director on the 67th Broadway kudofest, describes it as “a huge organizational job, and a production job,” coordinating the various Broadway casts that perform key numbers from their shows and managing the always ambitious opening number (in the case of the 2013 edition, a seven-minute Neil Patrick Harris extravaganza that involved nine Broadway casts).

Jamie Lawrence has a 1986 Emmy for arranging on the Tonys, an earlier era when the entire music team (music director and all the principal arrangers) could win. Today, only the music director is recognized.

Three musicians are credited, and nominated, as music directors for “Saturday Night Live.” Eli Brueggemann, who received his second and third Emmy noms this year, for songwriting and music direction, says: “I’m the off-camera composer, producer and conductor for sketch music. Leon Pendarvis is conductor of the band and Lenny Pickett is leader of the band, who curates the music that we play during commercials.”

Pickett has played sax in the “SNL” band since 1985 and has served as a music director since 1995; Pendarvis has been in the band since 1980. Brueggemann joined the team in 2011.

“You do all the preparation, then you see the actors in their costumes on Saturday and you’re able to see the video of your (dress) rehearsal” before an audience at 8 p.m., Brueggemann says. “So by 11:30, you’re not nervous. There’s a little bit of fear, but that’s really just the spark, knowing what you have to do and going out and executing it.”

One show that stands out is “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America,” the three-hour 50th anniversary salute to the Fab Four. The special not only reunited Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr onstage, it also featured such superstars as Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, the Eurythmics and Brad Paisley covering classic Beatles songs.

Says music director Don Was: “It was up to me to put the (backup) band together and make sure we played it right; to deal with the artists and make sure they were happy. The thing you can’t plan for is the spirit behind the show. To play those songs in front of the Beatles and their families was electrifying.

“The pivotal moment emotionally was during the sound check. Paul was running through ‘Hey Jude’ and Ringo was playing drums. The first couple of notes came through and everybody stopped. People started crying.”

Was cites the moment as a lesson learned. “If you’re going to be the music director, start with great songs,” he says. “It really makes it easier.”

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