Artist Blog

Vanessa Perica: My First Dive into the Symphonic World

Hello from Melbourne, Australia!

I’m delighted to have been asked to write a few words for the ISJAC blog. I thought I’d share with you the process behind my first symphonic commission with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra back in 2021. I feel this was a career defining moment for me, and an opportunity I’m incredibly grateful to have had.

A little back story on how the commission and collaboration came about…

Back in 2020, I launched my first big band album ‘Love is a Temporary Madness’, just before the pandemic hit our shores in late February. It felt like terrible timing at the time, but perhaps it worked out ok as many of us were home bound and taking in a lot more music than usual?

I sent a copy of the album to the Artistic Director of the MSO at the time, Matt Hoy. I didn’t think much more of it. More often than not, when I send emails and recordings to people they don’t respond. (I hope I’m not the only one!)

Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, I received a call from Matt whilst we were still in lockdown. He called to say how much he enjoyed the album, and had an idea he wanted to run by me. He asked if I’d be interested in using some of the material from the album to create a 22 minute suite and re-orchestrate it for my big band with the MSO for a performance at the iconic Sidney Myer Music Bowl. Of course I immediately said yes, but at the same time was thinking, we currently aren’t allowed to move more than a 2 kilometre radius from our homes – is this really going to happen?!

Luckily for me it did.

I must admit, I was both chuffed and a little intimidated when I first saw the program in print with my name alongside Ellington and Ravel. I am absolutely not worthy to be in the company of these extraordinary composers, but it was too late to back out by then! Most of my band (the Vanessa Perica Orchestra) kickstarted the program alongside the MSO with Duke’s sensational piece ‘Harlem’. Then the MSO performed Ravel’s stunning jazz inflected Piano Concerto in G Major, and the program concluded with my suite.

One of the biggest considerations in the early stages of the construction of this piece was the selection of five excerpts.

I factored in the following:

  • Flow – I’m always conscious of not wanting things to sound clunky – without being predictable to the listener
  • Contrast – is there enough diverse (yet cohesive) material here to hold everyone’s interest across the 22 minutes?
  • Which passages will lend themselves best to symphonic orchestration/colours
  • The excerpts/movements need to function as short pieces in their own right

With some back and forth from Matt Hoy, these are the excerpts I landed on, to create the ‘Love is a Temporary Madness, Symphonic Suite’.

‘Spaccanapoli’ –  (functions somewhat as an overture) 0:00 – 0:23 and 7:50 – 9:30

‘Dance of the Zinfandels’ – switched the soloist to trumpet, to mix up the saxophone solos 0:00 – 0:43 and 1:22 – 5:17

‘Woody’s Lament’ – 2:50 – 6:25

‘Love is a Temporary Madness’ – whole piece

‘Rebrahmanization’ – this was a no brainer, as the piece is originally loosely based on a Brahms rhapsody – 0:00 – 3:45 and 5:36 – 7:58

Then I had to select instrumentation in consultation with the MSO. I decided to forego the classical trumpets and trombones within the orchestra (as brilliant as they are), as my band had that covered. But we did beef up the brass section with four french horns and a tuba. All in all I think we had 72 musicians on stage. (see first page of score below for instrumentation)

 

Click to view full size document.

 

Slightly frightening was that I really hadn’t written for a symphony orchestra before – with the exception of a short piece I wrote for a condensed ensemble back in my uni days 20 years prior. So I needed to do a refresh of how to write for certain instruments. I must admit, I did reference the Henry Mancini book, ‘Sounds and Scores’ on occasion to make sure I was on the right track!

Probably the steepest learning curve I had came in tackling string bowing and articulations. This was completely foreign to me, and I definitely leant on the copyist for assistance. These new learnings have come in very handy with commissions that have popped up since.

A couple of other considerations I thought I’d share:

  • Figuring out the role of the orchestral double basses alongside the jazz double bassist. I had to be mindful of any walking bass lines (which admittedly there are not too many of), not clashing with the orchestral, bringing in concerns of lower level limits.
  • The role of the orchestral percussion, in so much as not to interfere with the jazz drummer, but to enhance grooves. Delay across a large outdoor stage can also be a factor. Percussion cuts through an orchestra unbelievably well. It’s amazing how a tiny triangle can make so much impact!

Some people have described my big band writing as at times, cinematic. I think this is perhaps why I felt the music transferred easily into the symphonic context.

One moment which I think really showcases the orchestra is the opening and ending of the 3rd movement ‘Woody’s Lament’, which ends with a telling strike from the tubular bells – marking the death of an old friend, pianist Graham Wood. There are quite a few new layers of melodies added to this movement in addition to the version from the album, which I hope has added a ‘lushness’ to the piece.

 

I enjoy hearing the orchestra in full flight on the chorus of the title track movement. I think the bass drum and timpani’s lend additional drama. I was determined to not have the orchestra play “second fiddle” to my big band. I wanted to them to be just as integral to the music. Another part where this is highlighted is in the final movement ‘Rebrahmanization’, where the original sax soli is re-orchestrated to included most of the orchestra.

The form mostly stayed in tact from album to this arrangement, however there is one additional tag towards the very end of this movement that gives the whole suite some extra punch.

 

Thankfully the collaboration was well received by the MSO and VPO musicians, as well as the audience. One of the most satisfying elements to this collaboration, was witnessing the mutual adoration between the members of my big band and the orchestra. They were genuinely blown away by what the other could do.

Another highlight was collaborating with the great conductor Ben Northey. He included me in discussions surrounding how the rehearsals would be structured, and the layout on stage for optimal acoustics. I was consulted throughout rehearsals and soundcheck to ensure all was as I intended. I didn’t expect quite that much input being a bit of a novice to the orchestral scene. Ben was a former jazz saxophonist who played in big bands in the past, and is a phenomenal and highly experienced conductor. Myself and my band (the VPO) were in the best possible hands.

He graciously invited me to conduct the encore. I was initially terrified at the prospect, but I’m so glad I agreed to it. It was a thrill, and I think it has lead to significant opportunities with conducting.

This commission and performance has opened a lot of doors for me, and widened my horizons…with me now writing more and more these days in the classical realm. I’m currently working on a commission for the exceptional Australian String Quartet which has me digging deep, and I also had the privilege of being a part of Ryan Truesdell’s yet be released ‘Synthesis: String Quartet Sessions’. I never envisaged these kinds of opportunities presenting a few years ago.

If I could offer any advice, it would be to say yes to things – even if they scare you – particularly if they scare you – and then figure out how you are going to execute them later. You never know what other opportunities may arise from a bold step. And don’t be afraid to ask trusted people for advice – especially when working outside your wheelhouse.

If you ever get the opportunity to write for symphony orchestra, and haven’t before – jump at it with both hands. It really opens the mind to all sorts of colours and textures. Writing for big band has never been the same since!

I’m incredibly grateful to the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for commissioning and performing this work, and to my band for their outstanding musicianship. We went into lockdown again three days after this performance…it seems timing is everything!

 


About the Author:

Vanessa Perica is an award-winning composer, arranger, conductor based in Melbourne, Australia.

Career highlights include winning the APRA Art Music Award and Australian Jazz Bell Award (2021) for ‘Work of the Year’, as well as the Music Victoria Award for ‘Best Jazz Album’ for her critically acclaimed debut, ‘Love is a Temporary Madness’.

Reaching number 1 on the AIR Independent charts, and number 3 on the ARIA Jazz & Blues charts, the album was also a nominee in the prestigious Australian Music Prize and AIR Independent Record Awards.

Vanessa has been commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to write compositions and arrangements for performances at the iconic Sidney Myer Music Bowl and Hamer Hall. The world premiere of the ‘Love is a Temporary Madness, Symphonic Suite’ by the MSO and Vanessa Perica Orchestra was a finalist in the 2022 APRA Art Music Awards ‘Performance of the Year: Jazz/Improvised Music’.

She has performed at the Perth, Sydney and Melbourne International Jazz Festivals, and with the Bergen Big Band in Norway.

She was named winner of the Society of Composers Jazz Composition Award in 2022 and 2023. Most recently she was also the recipient of the 2024 APRA Professional Development Award for Jazz/Improvised music.

Her commissioned works include the MSO, Monash Academy Orchestra, Australian National Jazz Orchestra with Vince Jones, Grammy Award-winning Producer Ryan Truesdell, Nadje Noordhuis, and the Australian String Quartet.

Vanessa is a Yamaha Artist, and the conductor for the Ministry of Sound Classical Australia/NZ National Tour.

https://www.vanessaperica.com

 

Performance Photo Credit: Mark Gambino, Artist Photo Credit: Pia Johnson