Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Jose Irizarry writes orchestrations for Donald Braswell's first Symphony Pops concert

Many of you know Donald Braswell from the hit TV reality show America's Got Talent.  Donald, a native of Boerne, and raised in the San Antonio area, was one of the show's finalists in 2008.  Donald graduated from Juilliard School of Music in NY, and went on to build a great career as an opera tenor.  In 1995, while on tour with the Welsh National Opera, Donald was struck by a car while cycling.  The accident took his voice, and all hopes of continuing a career as a singer.  Doctors said it would be hard for Donald to regain his speech, and that singing again was out of the question.  Eighteen years later, Donald was a finalist in a singing competition, and determined to pick up where he left off.

God has a way of making things happen.  After meeting each other at a wedding (of all places), Jose Irizarry (of Allegretto Music) kept running into Donald Braswell in the most unlikely places.  Each time, Jose would end the converstaion with "You know, Donald, I am a pretty good arranger.  I can write sheet music for you, for whatever instruments you need.  Just let me know anytime you need anything."  And Donald would always say: "Man, that would be really good."

Well, at their last "chance" encounter, during a Symphony concert in Kerrville, Donald said: "This cannot be a coincidence, that you are here.  I need you to write some music for me."  And so it was.  Donald had an opportunity to perform with the Symphony of the Hills, in a Pops Concert format.  That meant that Donald would sing with his band, accompanied by the full orchestra.  The challenge, each of the 70 orchestra musicians would need sheet music to read from.  Donald's band did not have orchestra arrangements for the music they were going to perform.  So they asked Jose if he could write some string parts, or even transcribe some keyboard charts they had.  At least that way they could involve some of the orchestra for the pop songs.

Jose had a much bigger vision for this concert.  He suggested that Donald needed full orchestrations for his music, similar to the style of concerts put on by famous tenors like Andrea Bocelli.  After all, the first time they worked together, Jose and Allegretto accompanied Donald singing Bocelli's Con Te Partiro.  Donald's people were skeptical.  That sounded like a huge project.  Was it even doable in the space of 3 weeks?  Jose offered to write an orchestration for the first song.  If they liked it, then he would write more.  If not, then no harm done, right?  Well.... they liked it.... a LOT!

Donald prepares backstage before the performance

Jose wrote orchestrations for 9 pieces, including an original song composed by Donald's musical director, Anthony Bazzani.  The concert was held on Saturday, June 27th at the Cailloux Theater in Kerrville, TX.  The concert was sold out.  Some of Donald's fans traveled from OR, CA, VA, OH, AR, NV and other parts of the country for the event.

Donald started out the evening with arias from the classical opera repertoire, proving that he's still got the chops for Verdi, Donizetti and Massenet.  Then, his New Chapter band emerged from the orchestra pit, and kicked off the rest of the concert with Sometimes I Dream, a song by tenor Mario Frangoulis.

The audience really enjoyed an Italian-English version of Nights In White Satin by Justin Hayward and Moody Blues.  And everyone was touched when Donald sang Buongiorno Pricipessa from the motion picture Life Is Beautiful.

But the highlight of the night was when he performed The Righteous Brothers' Unchained Melody.  The arrangement started out quietly, with just the harp and built up from there to include the entire orchestra.  It was awesome!  

To end the concert, Braswell chose to sing his signature song You Raise Me Up, made popular by Josh Groban.  It was the song with which he auditioned for the TV show that has given him a second chance at his first love of making music.  At the end, the audience wanted more.  So for an encore, Donald sang a soulful, gospel-style song: Change Is Gonna Come.  

The concert was a total success and Donald could not have been more pleased with his decision to have Jose write all the orchestrations.  "The arrangements make a huge difference," Donald said the first time he heard them in rehearsal.  Representatives from PBS were in attendance at the June 7th concert, where the arrangements were first played with just a string quartet.  Donald's musical director said that they had been "blown away by the arrangements", and have decided to produce a national PBS special with Donald, his band and Allegretto Music.

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