We Can Work It Out
Behind the Scenes with Seattle Rock Orchestra
It's 25 hours before Seattle Rock Orchestra take the stage at the Moore Theatre. SRO founder and music director Scott Teske, conductor Kim Roy, and their 50-plus-piece orchestra slowly file into a softly lit practice space on the third floor of an old brick building in Sodo. Laughter and a flurry of string instruments being tuned ring out and down into the rickety stairwell.
Inside the large, loftlike practice space, under strings of Christmas lights and white paper lanterns, someone's humming Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." Others are milling about and making small conversation or gathering their instruments and sheet music—but it doesn't take long before they get to work. There's much to be done; they'll go home only after they've successfully executed a 30-song set comprising some of Stevie Wonder's greatest songs.
The orchestra and the upcoming show's guest vocalists—Carson Henley, Tiffany Wilson, Mycle Wastman, Galen Disston, Flora McGill, Fysah Thomas, okanomodé, Michele Khazak, Darrius Willrich, and Allen Stone—have been rehearsing for the tribute concert once a week for about a month, though the show has been in the works for much longer. Back in May, after Teske decided the orchestra's next show would focus on the work of Wonder (previous shows celebrated the music of Arcade Fire, Radiohead, David Bowie, and Queen), Teske began the painstaking process of paring down a set list from a discography that contains 30 top-10 hits and 22 Grammys. Not an easy task, but after much deliberation, Teske decided he and the orchestra would take on 30 songs, the most the Seattle Rock Orchestra has ever performed in one concert.
"I just couldn't say no," says Teske with a laugh, while flashing a knowing grin that seems to acknowledge his enthusiasm might come back to bite him in the ass.
That night in Sodo, the orchestra members—many of whom have families and day jobs and other bands—appear to enthusiastically accept his challenge.
"Any time we have the rhythmic 'Ta ta tee tee ta,' that can be shorter and louder," says Roy, referring to the chorus in "For Once in My Life." Everyone in the orchestra scribbles notes on their pages of music. They start the song over again with vocalist Mycle Wastman looking like he's loving the opportunity to sing it every time.
Over the next few hours, members of the orchestra ask to clarify notes ("In bar 28, are you sure that's a B-flat?"), where to crescendo, and where to fade out. They stop and start the songs over again, all the while taking detailed notes and constantly rearranging the program.
"Tomorrow, if you're onstage and you think I don't know about that part, it's better to maybe just move your bow," Teske says. "I'm just gonna throw that out there. Do with that what you will." Everyone laughs.
At one point, they realize some of the woodwinds are missing pages for the chilling ballad "They Won't Go When I Go," which co-vocalist Michele Khazak describes as "the weirdest song in the history of humanity." (She's right—the song is arranged in a totally weird way, with odd harmonies, but it's hauntingly gorgeous.) Teske and Roy stay calm through countless questions, redoes, and inevitable flubs. Everyone stays at it for nearly four hours without a break.
2:00 p.m. Saturday, six hours before showtime: The orchestra and guest vocalists arrive at the Moore for sound check. The houselights are on, the theater is empty save for some employees running around, and Fysah Thomas stands at the edge of the stage, looking out at it all. He lets out a soft, awe-inspired "Oh. My. Gosh." Things get off to a rocky start—one of the violins keeps making a thumping noise into the mic, so they instrument check all the violin players. It seems to take forever.
4:13 p.m., three hours and 47 minutes before showtime: While the orchestra plays, Moore employees fuss with the lighting system. A man climbs up the wall and onto the light rigs on either side of the stage WITHOUT A LADDER OR ANY VISIBLE SAFETY EQUIPMENT—just hops up on the wall, pulls himself onto the light rig, wraps his legs around it, and magically does not fall off. He repeats this feat every time the lighting needs changes.
5:38 p.m., two hours and 22 minutes before showtime: Flora McGill and the orchestra rehearse Wonder's 1971 ballad "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer." She nails the vocals. Her voice is full and confident, and she captures the sadness in the song, but after one last run, Teske, drummer Emily Westman, and Roy agree that the song isn't working with the strings. They contemplate cutting it altogether, then someone suggests it be performed with just McGill and pianist Josh Wilson, which leaves the two with only one rehearsal before showtime.
6:30 p.m., one hour and 30 minutes before showtime: Sound check is over; the orchestra disperses for dinner ("There are no paper plates!" someone yells from backstage). This leaves a precious few minutes for them to change and get backstage by 7:30 p.m.
7:45 p.m.: The Moore is packed. Children, grandparents, teens file into the showroom, while another long line forms at the bar. They're dressed in everything from impressive sequined dresses and heels to ripped-up band T-shirts and well-worn Converse. "Ten minutes!" the ushers start yelling, and people scurry to find their friends and seats.
8:10 p.m.: The houselights slowly dim. The orchestra, now dressed in all black, takes the stage. Teske and Roy come out, take a bow, and the room is already booming with cheers and applause.
They open with the high-energy Motown classic "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," with Carson Henley singing. The audience is rapt and singing along from the first note—he's a magnetic performer and the perfect choice to start the show. "Do it, Carson!" people yell. They whoop and holler and explode with applause at the end of the song. The cheers continue through "We Can Work It Out," "For Once in My Life," and "Uptight (Everything's Alright)." It's all relentless and contagious.
Before intermission, McGill takes the stage wearing a fitted black-and-white dress reminiscent of Joan from Mad Men. She doesn't look the least bit nervous. Without hesitation, she and pianist Wilson play a perfect version of "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer" and receive another explosion of applause. It was a highlight of the show, and no one was the wiser that it almost didn't happen.
9:06 p.m.: Not five seconds into the funky bass line of "Superstition," people jump to their feet and run down the aisles to dance. The dance party of 20 quickly grows into a party of more than 100. Roy turns around and flashes a huge smile, even dances a bit (while still conducting!) from her podium; Teske (who also plays bass in the band) looks awed and ecstatic, bouncing his body along with the beat.
10:10 p.m.: After Allen Stone delivers an astonishing version of "You and I (We Can Conquer the World)," the orchestra receives a spirited standing ovation—the crowd starts chanting, "One more song!" Galen Disston, of local blue-eyed soul band Pickwick, joins Stone onstage for a playful duet of "Blowin' in the Wind." The crowd cheers but still begs for more. They'll have to wait until next time. The orchestra is out of material. And they probably want a much-deserved nap.