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Q&A with Rick Hirsch on "An Unforgettable Night of Nat King Cole" at The State Theatre

by on December 02, 2019 1:55 PM

Even if you’ve never attended The State Theatre’s annual end-of-the-year concert, chances are you’ve heard Rick Hirsch’s work.

Hirsch is the chief music arranger for Penn State’s Blue Band (he also works with Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Iowa, though we try not to hold that against him), writing much of their halftime music. You might also have seen the award-winning artist playing saxophone with Zeropoint Big Band, of which he is the musical director, the first Tuesday of every month at the American Ale House.

Town&Gown caught up with Hirsch to discuss An Unforgettable Night of Nat King Cole, which Hirsch is directing at The State Theatre on December 7.

T&G: Tell us a little about yourself.

Hirsch: I’ve been in town 20 years, and I’m a musician. That means a few things. I play the saxophone. I’m also a composer and arranger, and I teach music at my own private studio.

T&G: What is your role in this upcoming State Theatre show?

Hirsch: It’s a co-production between [The State Theatre] and me; we work together. This is really their signature production of the year. Usually in about January or February, we’re having conversations about this December concert. The State pulls out all the stops for this show.  

T&G: What should people expect from this program?

Hirsch: What I think is really cool about this concert is that it’s different from any concert around the area. It’s kind of a throwback to older television variety shows, like the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, where there was a house orchestra, and they could back up any guest artist who came in, no matter what their material was. We have that house orchestra, Zeropoint Big Band, and this year we have four really well-known, terrific singers from State College (Tyne Palazzi, Natty Lou Race, Andy Tolins, and Elizabeth Webb). They come out one at a time, and there will be some duets. They’ll kind of mix and match.

T&G: Do you usually feature local artists at these concerts?

Hirsch: Always. It’s a completely homegrown event. It’s really a celebration of this great talent we have in State College and the region – not just State College, but central PA. Every year, we try to choose a handful of the best singers and instrumentalists to get a chance to play in front of this 17-piece band. It’s all this local, regional talent in our own amazing venue. And I just found out this is going to be the first time using a brand-new PA system. The State Theatre [re-]opened in 2006, and I guess they were due to upgrade the sound system. I thought it was good, but the new one must be pretty awesome!

T&G: How did you go about choosing Nat King Cole this year?

Hirsch: It was really two things. We try to mix up the program and not do the same thing every year. Last year, we moved forward slightly with the Beatles’ music, and we thought it’d be fun to go back a little in time. Nat King Cole is one of the most beloved entertainers from the last hundred years. There was that aspect of it, and it turns out this is his centennial year. If he were alive, he’d be 100 years old. That kind of made it an easy choice.

T&G: Will you be playing primarily classics, or will concertgoers hear some new material?

Hirsch: Some of the music we’re going to play is going to be the authentic, original music that was written for Nat King Cole, that we’ll play in that old style. We’ll have that nostalgic, classic, ’50s sound. But there will also be forays into some Latin jazz, a little bit of rock ’n’ roll.

[Nat King Cole’s] catalogue is cool and fairly vast actually, because it ranges from some of his signature songs, like “Unforgettable,” of course, but he also has some of these novelty songs that are cute. He has these crooner ballads, but then he’s got the fun, playful songs.

T&G: What is your criteria for picking songs?

Hirsch: My main criteria is that it’s a song the singer has picked out as something she or he wants to sing, because that tells me they’re invested in it, and it’s comfortable for them. I want the singers to sound their best, and I want the experience to be as stress-free as possible.

T&G: Is there some behind-the-scenes secret about this show that would surprise people?

Hirsch: I think some people would like to be a fly on the wall at a rehearsal to see what actually goes on. We basically have one rehearsal. About a third of the band live in what I call the Susquehanna Valley, from Harrisburg to Williamsport to Lewisburg. It’s a drive. They all have teaching jobs or other gigs and families, so they can’t just rehearse any time. So the week of the show, one evening we have a rehearsal with the whole band and all the singers. That one night, for two or three hours, we play all of the music for the first time together, and that’s about three days before the concert. It’s because all of the musicians are top-shelf. They’re so experienced, they’re highly trained, they know what to do. They’re pros.

T&G: What are five words you’d use to describe this concert?

Hirsch: Elegant, surprising, nostalgic, energizing, and feel-good.

 

For more information on the concert and to purchase tickets, visit thestatetheatre.org.  

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.

 

 

 

 

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