Simon Dobson: The Process of Adding an Orchestra to a Rock Concert
How Parallax Orchestra performing with Alter Bridge came to be
Do you ever wonder what it’s like for a full orchestra to perform with a rock band? How do you prepare? How do you adjust your style of playing to mesh with electric guitars, amplifiers and pounding drums? What’s the emotion of adding such beautiful layers, melodies and harmonies to hard-driving, electric songs?
Meet Simon Dobson, conductor of the Parallax Orchestra. On October 2nd and 3rd, Dobson led Parallax in joining on stage acclaimed rock band, Alter Bridge. The forces came together and delivered two passion-filled, 22-song nights at London’s Royal Albert Hall — a venue that aesthetically embodies orchestral like no other.
I recently caught up with Dobson who took me through how the exciting process leads to an unforgettable performance.
What is your history in performing in/leading an orchestra? When and where did you begin?
I began conducting wind and brass ensembles in my late teens, and began forming ensembles to hone my skills when I was studying at the Royal College of Music opposite the RAH in Kensington.
How many instruments do you play?
I play the trumpet professionally, in four or five bands and in studios. I use piano creatively in my career as a composer, but would never call myself a pianist!
It is so unique when a full orchestra joins a band for a performance, especially a rock band. Can you explain the process of what it’s like for an orchestra to do this? What type of preparation is needed, how you adjust your playing style and the emotion of the performance?
The Parallax Orchestra is formed from performers who are all more geared towards a crossover style of performance and collaboration. This is partly why we’ve chosen them for our ensemble. Slowly but surely, we are creating an orchestra of players who are excited by music other than classical music. For this reason, there is a great work ethic amongst the orchestra and this makes the my and the orchestral management teams jobs somewhat easier.
The preparation of the orchestral music is what takes the most time, and myself and two others (Orchestral manager, Will Harvey and composer Andrew Skeet) had been hard at work behind the scenes at this for months prior to the shows. We get sent the bands set and get on with the job or writing the tunes for the orchestra. These parts are then sent out to the players to give them time to learn (we are very lucky to have a totally kick-ass orchestra, the parts are never easy at all). Next, we meet without the band to run the show from scratch, then we have full rehearsals with the band. We will then run tech rehearsals just before the show. In terms of adjusting our playing, we adapt to who we play with. Rock stuff requires more attitude and aggression, and it’s my job to draw this from the players during our performances.
How did Parallax performing with Alter Bridge come to be?
We performed at the RAH with Bring Me The Horizon last year. Having seen this performance Alter Bridge’s manager called me and asked if we would like to do something similar with them. Obviously, I said yes straight away! I then passed them over to Will Harvey, the orchestral manager who took over the logistics and negotiations from there.
What was the preparation like for this show?
For me it was all about writing and learning the scores. This involved countless hours working with Sibelius (a music notation program) on my Mac and then learning the scores by practicing them alongside the Alter Bridge mocked-up orchestral demos, all the while trying to spot potential problems and ‘trip up’ moments before we are even rehearsing them.
How far in advance did you have the setlist?
I’d say it was around about three or four months before the shows.
What can you say about both the overall experience of performing at Royal Albert Hall?
It’s always a bunch of work when ever we collaborate, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Producing over two hours worth of written score and all of the logistical effort that goes into getting a great team of players together for five days is a huge undertaking, but conversely the RAH is probably the most prestigious venue in the UK so the effort is normally always outweighed by the sheer joy of performing with Parallax at that venue. When we’re there the pressure is always on and its a very taxing job, you literally can’t afford to make any mistakes at all as everything is recorded and filmed, but the pressure normally makes you concentrate harder. The overall experience this time was one of really great vibes, due to the band themselves being such great guys and so easy to work with — combined with an amazing crowd and a really high level of performance from everyone involved.
Had you ever performed there before? It seems like a perfect place for such a show?
It was the Parallax Orchestras second set of shows at the RAH. As a composer I’ve had whole bunch of my music played there so I’m no stranger to the atmosphere and the room, but standing on that podium is amazing. The venue itself is so great to fans and bands alike and really lends its self to big productions!
From afar, it seemed like a very emotional night. Alter Bridge’s songs, lyrics, delivery and fan-base are very sincere. From your position, what was the emotion in the room like those two nights?
It was a particularly emotional night for the orchestra and myself as we’d been working so hard to produce a tight show, but more than that, in the short rehearsal run we’d already gotten to know the band. We knew they were really nice guys and we knew that this show meant a great deal to them too, as it did to the fans. When put all that emotional intent in a venue like the RAH and its always going to be great vibes.
Did you have a favorite song/performance with Alter Bridge?
For me it was all about the medley that Myles sang; “Wonderful Life/Watch Over You”. I wrote the orchestral arrangement for that one and it was also one of the only points for which the orchestra didn’t play to click track, giving us greater freedom. It also meant that the was a very powerful connection between myself, Myles and the orchestra. All of us concentrating, playing from the heart and loving the vibes.