For decades, the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra has been committed to enriching and inspiring the community through orchestral performances. Now in its 68th season, FSO and first-year music director Charles Latshaw are bringing Motown to the orchestra with "Motown & Classics," featuring guest vocalist Laurice Lanier.
The songs chosen for the performance comprise a wide range of pop, soul and Motown music, with the symphony and Lanier covering artists such as Earth Wind and Fire, Al Green, Whitney Houston, Etta James, Barbra Streisand, Adele, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.
Latshaw said organizing "Motown & Classics" has been a little different than a traditional FSO performance. He said, for one thing, planning for a traditional show is easier. The symphony typically chooses a song, hundreds of years old, that has already been transcribed and written for an orchestral performance, whereas when planning a “pop show,” the written music isn’t always readily available. To help with transcribing the music for an orchestra, FSO sought the help of Nick Hersh, who is currently the associate conductor with the Baltimore Symphony.
“It’s, in some ways, equally rewarding or more rewarding because hopefully we will attract a different audience. But it’s a lot of work to set up a pop program,” Latshaw said.
Latshaw said the idea for a Motown or pop show had been in the works for a while.
“We knew we wanted to do stuff that was all popular. [Lanier] could come in and sing a whole show of opera, a whole show of gospel, a whole show of Motown. And so we put it together in a way I think shows off the versatility of what she can do,” Latshaw said.
With music from Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston, Latshaw said the performance gives “a sense of what great music came out of Detroit at that time and what a great musician [Lanier] is and how she could really run that gamut musically.”
Lanier has been studying music since she was 6, with piano instruction under Alicia Dunn and Soo-Young Kim. Growing up, her father was a preacher, so Lanier began playing piano and organ in church. She went on to study dance, piano, voice and musical theater at the Governor’s School of the Arts in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and later attended the Juilliard School in New York. Lanier currently acts as director of music ministries for the First United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Texas. With a vast background in performing blues, soul, opera and jazz, Lanier’s versatile voice captures the heart-warming nostalgia of the classics FSO will be playing.
Lanier and Latshaw met and performed together at a concert in Tennessee in 2014. It was similar to the "Motown & Classics" concert that they're bringing to Flagstaff. With Lanier’s smoky, sensual voice leading, Latshaw felt it was important to have an equal balance of the singer’s talents and the orchestra’s accompaniment.
“All of these songs are really written in a way that really features the orchestra. They’re not just sitting in the background, waiting for the singer to get to the end of the song,” said Latshaw with a laugh. “Instead, they’re rocking the whole show.”
Latshaw continued, “That was really important to me, because, a lot of times, a concert like this might have a band out front and then the orchestra sits behind and they sort of get stuck in the background,” said Latshaw. “Here it’s a show where we’re doing it together, and it really features the FSO, and [Lanier] is just amazing.”
Some may feel a band, not an orchestra, is the proper conduit for rock, pop and soul, but Latshaw says symphony concertgoers will be surprised.
“If you think you’re going to be missing something by not having the guitar and the rock band out there, I think you’ll be very happily surprised at the way the orchestra fills that space," he said.