Awards Ceremonies Are the ‘Super Bowl’ for Orchestras

Lady Gaga performs a tribute to David Bowie at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Live television has been compared to walking a tightrope without a net. Now imagine doing that while playing an oboe.

The orchestral accompaniment for the top awards shows is one of the industry’s most underrated precision feats. “It’s the pressure of a Super Bowl,” says Harold Wheeler, music director for the 90th Academy Awards, airing March 4 on ABC. “It’s a lot of music and very little time to prepare. We can’t really do anything until the nominations come out, then its only five weeks to the show.”

In addition to the Oscars, the Emmys and the Tonys are other major entertainment awards shows that still use live orchestras. It’s a testament to the anonymity of musicians that, while references to the Golden Globes “orchestra” abound — mainly in the context of celebrity invective at being played off — it exists only in the collective imagination; the show uses only commercially recorded music (although last year it upped the hipster quotient with Questlove as house DJ). A smaller outfit accompanies the NAACP Image Awards, which uses a live eight-piece band that includes four string players.

The early Grammy Awards featured an orchestra, a tradition that continued for about a decade after the first live telecast in 1971. Ken Ehrlich, who has a 40-year history with the show and was the executive producer of the Jan. 28 show on CBS, recalls that when he came aboard in the ’80s, “Pierre Cossette was the executive producer and he had Jack Elliott, a very well-known conductor who for years led a live Grammy orchestra onstage. I can’t remember [when] that stopped, but at a certain point, it was decided that, given the nature of our show, orchestra music wasn’t as relevant as dropping the tracks the artist had been nominated for. It just connected better.”

Ehrlich still uses musical directors, however. “I like to do these compilation numbers where we mix and match people, and put together four or five artists nominated in a category,” he says. “I try to democratize it; rather than using a music director specifically associated with one act, we’ll bring our own guy on. I’ve used Rickey Minor, Don Was, Greg Phillinganes and T Bone Burnett. I like to choose the music, but have them do arrangements and transitions.”

When Lady Gaga did the David Bowie tribute, Nile Rodgers, the late singer’s collaborator on seminal albums like “Let’s Dance,” handled music direction.
Wheeler says one of his biggest career challenges was during the 2016 Oscars when “Straight Outta Compton” was nominated for best screenplay. “We have electronic keyboards and musicians who are familiar with that [hip hop] sound, but even using just 20 musicians, I felt it wasn’t true to the genre,” he confesses. Usually it’s the opposite problem — making his 45-piece orchestra sound like the 90-piece symphonies frequently used for big feature scores.

“Compton” didn’t win, so Wheeler’s orchestra didn’t have to play it. But since the orchestra, like everyone else, doesn’t know the winner until the name is read from the envelope, a musical arrangement is prepared for each of the five nominees in 24 categories — 120 cues. It’s an extraordinary feat: 45 musicians launching into one of five randomly selected pieces on the count of three. “These are professional musicians — the best of the best,” Wheeler says of the American Federation of Musicians union players. “We put the music in front of them and they play it. We rehearse one time,” at Capitol Studios, where the music is recorded as a back-up in case of emergency.

All in, Wheeler prepares “between 130 and 140 pieces of music” for the three-plus hour Oscarcast, with the five best song nominees arranged and performed in full, usually with the original vocalist.

The in-memoriam segment is another longer piece. “Sometimes it’s original music, sometimes it’s a piece of film underscore that just happens to fit the mood. Last year Sara Bareilles sang the Joni Mitchell song ‘Both Sides Now.’ She actually approached us and says ‘I’ve got this idea’ and sent over a demo. That was the first time someone had asked to do it. And we really liked it.”

If Wheeler had to get creative with an orchestra arrangement around Bareilles’ vocals, the opposite also happens, as when Adam Blackstone incorporated the London Symphony into Eminem’s “Walk on Water” for the song’s bravura debut for November’s MTV European Music Awards. “That was me scoring for 20 violas,” he says, noting that the idea was to create for the first public performance “more of a theatrical, movie score-type feel.”

Rickey Minor, music director for the 69th Emmy Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors and the 2008 through 2010 Grammy shows, as well as for multiple seasons of “American Idol,” says creative ideas are one of a music director’s main responsibilities. “Sonically you have to be clever to get an 80-piece sound with a 16-piece orchestra,” he says, noting that was the size of his Emmy ensemble. “The job involves a lot of suggestions as to possibilities. You have to be quick on your feet and able to surprise, while still realizing the producer’s vision.”

Patrice Rushen, who chairs the pop program at USC’s Thornton School of Music, has broken barriers as the first female music director for top awards shows including the Emmys and the NAACP Image Awards. She remembers growing up watching the Grammys and aspiring to be in that orchestra. “It was the pinnacle, because they played all types of music,” says the classically trained pianist, who was twice nominated and served as music director for the show from 2004 to 2006. By then, the duties were largely logistical: “Making sure every performing act understood the time parameters and had a music person to talk to.” As the spectacle quotient increased, with a propensity to pair legacy acts with contemporary artists, Rushen found herself writing arrangements and helping to figure out “how we were going to present it for the live show. It was thrilling.”

Patrick Vaccariello, music director for the Tony Awards for the past four years, concurs. His is a 26-piece orchestra positioned off to the side of the stage, performing live within sightline of an audience of 5,000 people in New York’s Radio City Music Hall. “There’s nothing like it,” he says. “It’s an energy rush that’s just unbelievable, which we feed off of.”

Adds Rushen: “Music is meant to be experienced.”