Keith Emerson To Make Conducting Debut with Orchestra Kentucky

Sep 13, 2013

Credit Orchestra Kentucky

An iconic musician is coming to Bowling Green for a night of firsts with Orchestra Kentucky.

In the 1970s, Keith Emerson was part of the band Emerson Lake and Palmer, a group that often combined classical music and progressive rock , catching the ear of a young Jeff Reed.

“I was a teenager and because I loved classical music and rock music, I thought it was great to hear the combination of the two styles. I think they did a lot for classical music,” said Reed.  “They took it out of the concert hall and put it through vinyl and onto young people’s turntables.  They made it a little cooler and a little bit more accessible and I’m all for that.”

Flash forward to 2013 and Reed is now musical director of Orchestra Kentucky. On Monday at SKyPAC in Bowling Green, Reed's orchestra will take the stage with Emerson.

“I’ve worked with a pianist from New York City named Jeffrey Biegel. He had developed a relationship with Keith Emerson through his Piano Concerto.  Through that, I learned that I could have Keith Emerson come and we could perform his Piano Concerto.   Then the idea came about that we could do a concert of music that influenced Emerson Lake and Palmer.”

Emerson, now 68 years old and living in California,  says while he and his band mates were innovators in the 60s and 70s, he drew inspiration from the music he grew listening to in England

“I was obviously very attentive to the radio and probably rock-n-roll  at that particular time.  I was particularly attracted to how various bands, well big bands, actually, from the '40s and '50s, sort of ‘rocked out the classics’.  My music teacher said ‘they’re adulterating this music and you shouldn’t do that’”
Among his influences: Tommy Dorsey, the Swingle Singers, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

“Reading the liner notes on one of their albums they mentioned ‘it all comes from Bach’,” said Emerson of Brubeck’s music.  “Then my interest in classical music started to develop and I thought ‘Wow, okay, I really like this and it’s fun to play. And, thankfully, Greg [Lake] and Carl [Palmer] felt the same way. “

Emerson’s signature sound in the 1970s came from an instrument called the Moog synthesizer.  Emerson remembers the first time he heard the instrument. He walked into a London record store in Soho in 1969. The guy behind the counter put on a Walter Carlos album called “Switched on Bach”.

“To me, it sounded rather stodgy.  But then he showed me the album cover and this strange-looking instrument that looked like a telephone switchboard and I went ‘Wow!  Where do I find one of these?’”

Emerson along with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer found commercial success through the 1970s. In the late 70s, Emerson wrote Piano Concerto No. 1. He's performed it with symphonies from London to Tokyo. On Monday night, Emerson will watch as the piece is performed by Orchestra Kentucky and a guest on the piano. 

“It’s wonderful. I mean Jeffrey Biegel, who’s playing my concerto, does it marvelously.  I’m in awe of his technique and everything like that.”

Emerson says he's filled with pride when he hears orchestras and symphonies perform his music

“It’s just remarkable to have other people playing your music. All I can say is that it’s the greatest compliment that I think anyone can ever have.”

Several years ago, Emerson was approached about writing the film score for a movie that was in the works about a Civil War battle in New Mexico in 1862 called Glorieta Pass. After fierce fighting, the Union army turned aside an attempt by a confederate Calvary from Texas to move farther into the southwest.

“I read the script and it really appealed to me. So without any further ado, I sat down at the keyboard and I wrote the theme.  But then, it turned out, the film that was planning to be made, wasn’t going to be made.”

Emerson says he didn't want to let the musical score go to waste, so he and an arranger from Norway turned it into a full-blown orchestral piece. The world premiere of Emerson's Glorieta Pass is Monday.

“I think in a way the music and what I wrote for that reflects the passion and the energy [of the battle]. I hope it does, anyway,” said Emerson . “You’ve got snares drums and a lot of timpani and of course if it’s military, you’ve gotta have a trumpet. “

It will also be the first time that Emerson will conduct an orchestra as he takes the baton at the head of Orchestra Kentucky.

“What can I say? I’m a bit nervous about it. I’ve been fortunate to have some great conductors teaching me here in Santa Monica. I’ve also read books on it.  But it’s nothing like facing the real thing.”

After more than 40 years performing on stage, the butterflies are still there for Keith Emerson