The Roswell Symphony Orchestra and musicians of the Roswell Jazz Festival perform for the first time together
By Christina Stock
The Roswell Symphony Orchestra (RSO) and the Roswell Jazz Festival (RJF) will feature a concert with Michael Francis and some of his fellow RJF musicians at the New Mexico Military Institute’s Pearson Auditorium on North Main Street (at the overpass walkway), Feb. 1 at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. There will be a cash bar.
Every generation explores variations of music, letting the tunes speak about its generation, its era. Very few styles of music remained true throughout the decades. Such music is what we call today classic music performed by an orchestra. The only music style that has reached a similar success is the authentic American genre, jazz.
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For the first time in its history, the RSO welcomes the musicians of the RJF into their midst, which includes a 25-minute sequence in the center of the concert. It is a fitting beginning of the new decade and part of the 60th season of Roswell’s historic symphony orchestra.
Maestro John Farrer wrote in an email, “I am really looking forward to having Michael Francis and friends on our February 1st concert. This is a truly special event; it is definitely a first for the RSO. I am a long-time admirer of Michael.
“The Bernstein and Gershwin works on the program are tributes to two of our greatest American composers. They were truly innovative, compelling creative artists,” Farrer wrote. Farrer has been the music director of RSO for 48 years.
One of the musicians who has been performing with the orchestra the longest is Mary Hale. When she heard about the concert, she said, “I’ve listened to Michael Francis at the Roswell Jazz Festival for years. I am privileged to see him joining us.”
Francis himself had been on the board of RSO before he helped to organize the Roswell Jazz Festival, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.
“Two of the most cultural activities — I am not ruling out visual art — the Symphony and the Jazz Festival working together. This is the culmination of a dream that I had for a long time,” Francis said.
The first time Francis had that dream was when the San Francisco Symphony joined one of the most renowned heavy metal bands in 1999, Metallica, in a concert — a success that amazed fans of both genres worldwide. Francis admits that he is not a fan of heavy metal, but he was impressed with the performance. He was not the only one impressed. The concert was recorded on a live album. When it debuted, it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and has since been certified five times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Last year, to celebrate the concert’s 20th anniversary, the San Francisco Symphony collaborated with Metallica again. It included another concert, a live album and a movie of the concert. The world embraced it again. According to Forbes, the concert film was played in 3,700 movie theaters around the world, pulling more than $5.5 million worldwide, the single biggest global rock event movie release in history with more than 460,000 ticket holders.
The RSO and the RJF join those visionaries, breaking down barriers in Roswell and uniting fans of both the symphony and jazz.
Francis said that he is grateful to have been approached for this concert. “The idea was from Jim Manatt, he was president of the symphony at the time,” Francis said. “He had it approved, he had to step down because his daughter was running for New Mexico Congress, so he was very busy doing that. But he said he’s going to be there. I want to give him credit for thinking of us. He’s the one who invited us. I think classical music is fabulous. I am really grateful and thankful to be part of this world.”
The RSO performance will feature Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to “Candide,” “West Side Story” selections by Bernstein and Jack Mason and George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture;” RJF musicians perform “Softly As In The Morning Sunrise” by Sigmund Romberg, “In A Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington, the New Orleans’ staple “St. James Infirmary,” a favorite of Louis Armstrong, “Calcutta Cutie” by Horace Silver, to name a few. Last editions will be included during rehearsal. As usual for RSO, there will be only one rehearsal. “That’s how they do business,” Francis said. “But I’ll be ready. This string arrangement isn’t going to be difficult for them. It is well-written with them in mind.”
The 25-minute section in the middle of the concert features Francis on piano; and his RJF friends include the president of RJF, Charles Gordon (trumpet), Steve Weger (trumpet), Greg Weger (cello), Danny Garcia (clarinet), Glen Kostur (saxophone), Richard Simon (bass), Erik Unsworth (bass), Ricky Malichi (percussion) and Jim Shearer (tuba).
“I think it will be an eye-opener,” Francis said. “My cousin Steve Weger is retired from the Fort Worth Symphony. His son, Greg Weger, is a magnificent cello player and he is going to be in the string section for the string piece that we are doing, ‘Calcutta Cutie.’ In fact, Greg and Richard Simon and my bass player, Eric Unsworth, all three of them are playing with the symphony the whole evening.”
“Calcutta Cutie” is Francis’ special surprise for the audience and a treat for the string musicians of RSO. “I contacted a well-known, high-end arranger on the East Coast,” he said. “His name is Marty Sheller and he’s worked with Tito Puente and all these big names. He was actually the music director of a Latin band, Mongo Santamaria — he was a trumpet player with them. He was a magnificent arranger. We’ve been friends for years and I called him up and told him about a piece that I wanted to do with the symphony and that I would like to get a string part for the string section. He wrote a beautiful arrangement, especially for this event.”
In an email, Sheller wrote, “I’ve written many arrangements for Michael. It’s a pleasure to work with him. He’s a terrific musician, an honorable man and a good friend.”
Sheller sent a biography of his by email, as well. Here are some highlights, “Among Santamaria’s four Grammy-nominated Latin-jazz recordings I produced was the album ‘Dawn,’ which won a Grammy for Best Latin Recording of 1977. Besides scoring the 1989 hit, ‘El Gran Varon’ and many other recordings and productions by Willie Colon, my arrangements can be heard on recordings by George Benson, Ruben Blades, David Byrne, Jon Faddis, The Fania All-Stars, Giovanni Hidalgo, Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Sabu Martinez, T.S. Monk, Idris Muhammad, Shirley Scott, Woody Shaw, The Spanish Harlem Orchestra and Steve Turre.
“I collaborated with Charlie Gerard on the book ‘Salsa – The Rhythm of Latin Music’ and arranged a Clio Award-nominated Budweiser TV commercial featuring the singing of Jose Feliciano. I composed, arranged and produced the music for the PBS TV mini-series ‘Oye Willie’ and did the same for the NBC TV (New York) Hispanic affairs program ‘Visiones.’
“On July 24, 2006, I was the subject of an oral history interview collected by The National Museum of American History (a part of The Smithsonian Institute). The interview is a key objective of the Online Project For Latino Jazz Documentation and Education.
“In 2007, I recorded my first CD entitled, ‘Why Deny.’ It was nominated as a finalist in the category of Best Latin Jazz Recording by the Jazz Journalists Association, and in 2017, I released my second CD ‘Libre.’
The concert is a fundraiser for RSO and RJF who will share the proceeds of the sold tickets with exception of the RSO season’s subscriber tickets. Limited tickets are available.
For more information, visit roswellsymphony.org or call 575-623-5882, or visit roswelljazz.org or call 505-359-4876.