BWW Interview: PASSING THE BATON: DOC'S NEW MAESTRO, RICHARD CARSEY
Brad Kelley, former conductor of Disney On Classic (DOC) recently turned over his baton to the new maestro, Richard Carsey. I was fortunate to work with Richard in New York and am thrilled for his new position with The Orchestra Japan!
Readers are always interested in origins. Tell me about your early life and training. I'm from Omaha, Nebraska, and lived there until I went to college. I was a singer from an early age, and played piano at 9. I was fortunate to study with some great teachers, and graduated from Millard High School, which had a strong choir program. I was the lead in the musicals in high school, and even though both of my music degrees are in piano (from University of Louisville and Indiana University), my heart was always in theater. At IU my assistantship was as répétiteur, (a pianist who rehearses and coaches singers one-on-one) and rehearsal pianist for the opera program, where we did six full-length operas and musicals every year. A few years after graduating I became Resident Music Director for the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee, WI, then Artistic Director, and Principal Conductor. For a while I split my career between acting and conducting, and then I was fortunate to be asked to music direct/conduct some national tours: Little House on the Prairie, La Cage Aux Folles, and the most recent US tour of The Phantom of the Opera. Those projects eventually wooed me away from the Skylight to the east coast, where I became one of the conductors of Phantom on Broadway.
How did the opportunity with DOC come about? Tony Clements, who first performed in the concert and now serves as a Creative Director for Harmony Japan and Assistant Producer for DOC, is a friend and colleague from Milwaukee. In fact, we met when he was a cast member in the first show I ever conducted, which was Gershwin's Girl Crazy at Skylight. I knew about DOC because of his involvement, and when he was looking for a New York music director, I had just left the tour of Phantom and was available. I initially got involved because of Tony, and stayed involved because the project itself was unique and rewarding. I began as music director for the singers, who rehearse the season's program in NYC before coming to Japan to join the orchestra for performances. This often involved vocal arranging, since some of the material had to be expanded or reduced from the original charts. During that time I also began to play for DOC's auditions in NYC, which is where the producers from Harmony Japan and Disney came to know me personally as well as professionally.
How did you transition from Music Director in New York to conducting The Orchestra Japan? Disney on Classic concerts are a unique combination of concert repertoire and theatrical presentation. Because of my diverse experiences, I've been a good fit. It's not every concert in the world that juxtaposes the pop version of Beauty and the Beast with Respighi's The Pines of Rome, followed by a 55-minute version of Aladdin with all the songs and underscored sections of dialogue. As conductor, I have to switch styles and skill sets quickly.
Favorite Disney movie? Character? Score? There are many Disney films I love, but I think Beauty and the Beast stands out as a nearly perfect creation. There's not a wasted moment, and each frame is filled with such loving detail. It's a modern cinematic classic. Favorite character is a little tougher, but as a kid I thought Captain Hook was hilarious and a little bit scary. It may also have been his campy costume- that red coat and huge black hat! He's so flamboyant. My favorite score is undoubtedly Alan Menken's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's dramatic, operatic, and incredibly ambitious. I was lucky enough to conduct the full score of the Hunchback film on my first Disney on Classic spring tour this year. It was an amazing place to start, and I was blessed with a dazzlingly talented cast of singing actors.
Are you involved in the material selection? The material is decided by the Harmony Japan producers, with the approval of Disney. I have a great relationship with them and they welcome suggestions, but ultimately the decisions are theirs. That said, when I was asked to become conductor of DOC, one of my first requests was to do Hunchback. Fortunately they had a great passion for it, too.
What challenges do you face as an English-speaking conductor of The Orchestra Japan? I do speak very little Japanese, but honestly, no orchestra in the world comes to rehearsal to hear the conductor talk. They come to collaborate and make music, which is a universal language. I show directly what I want with the baton- the quality of the gesture I'm making should elicit the aural response I'm looking for. It's my responsibility to mold, shape, and pace the sound from the podium. When that needs further explication, I can also demonstrate articulation or attack by singing. There are interpreters available when needed, for instance, if a player has a question about a note or if I have to explain how something is going to work (like a cut, or an additional bar of drum solo). It's the dream of every conductor to establish an ongoing relationship with an orchestra. It's rare to work together for long periods of time and learn from one another, mold a "sound" together. The Orchestra Japan is a world-class ensemble of amazing players. I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to lead them. That said, one of my proudest moments was being able to get a laugh from the orchestra by making a comment in Japanese.
Do you have time for other projects? The spring tour is about a month, and the fall tour runs from mid-September through December 31- the final concert is a New Year's Concert at the 5,000 seat Tokyo Forum. It's roughly 5 months a year in Japan, which is quite a bit. And the programs are big, there's lots of music to learn before I ever get to Asia. Phantom Broadway has been incredibly supportive (there are four other conductors) and I'm grateful for that. I will have time to do some orchestral guest conducting in the states, while I enjoy as much time at home as I can. I'm continually trying to balance the different parts of life.
What are the differences between Japanese and American audiences? I've been all over the US and Canada, to South and Central America, the Middle East and Europe, but never Asia. Japan's culture is very welcoming, and seemingly everyone here is eager to help a visitor. Audiences are a little quieter than in the US, but I'm finding it is rooted in the respect they have for the performance itself. Audiences in Japan love to be asked to participate, to get on their feet, to clap along, to learn hand gestures to accompany a song, things like that, and they are very generous with applause at the end of a show. The DOC bows are long by American standards, but a Japanese audience loves to have time to show their appreciation.
What is your relationship to the fans? Disney has a huge fan base in Japan, and that includes Disney on Classic. When I was given the position I was flown to Japan to participate in a press conference and a week of interviews and television appearances introducing me to the public. And of course I was thinking, "Do they really care who's conducting?" Well, it turns out they do! The fans are passionate about DOC. I actually get stopped on the street. It's wild!
Favorite sights/experiences in Japan? Japan is a place filled with "unexpected beauty." The presentation of food, the huge number of flower arrangements, gardens, flower beds, the gorgeous architecture that runs the gamut from ancient to modern, the carefully planned public lighting - it's just one beautiful thing after another. Yes, I do want to see the shrines, the markets and the museums, but what's most enriching to me is noticing the beautiful day-to-day details that are everywhere, including surprising places. I will never forget a life-sized statue of two samurai warriors on horseback, flanked by an enormous display of fresh flowers, plus an indoor farmer's market...all at a highway rest stop.
How does it feel to inherit the baton from Brad Kelley? Brad was the first conductor for Disney on Classic and led performances for 15 years. He made the concert into what it is today, and he is a beloved figure to the fans. It's an honor to assume this position, and his legacy looms large. Brad is a fantastic guy, a wonderful musician, composer, and arranger. He was incredibly gracious and welcoming to me as I took on this job. I can't "replace" Brad, and I would be foolish enough to try. Every artistic leader brings new insights and skills to the table, and I hope that mine prove to be as fruitful for DOC as Brad's have been.
Where can readers find out more about you?
I'm revising my website RichardCarsey.com which will reopen in the next month or so, but in the meantime people can follow me on Instagram (RichardLCarsey) to see what I'm up to.