The American musical melting pot gets stirred up when folk meets classical head-on. 

Orchestral Arlo

Arlo Guthrie and John Nardolillo are unlikely musical collaborators. Guthrie — the son of Woody Guthrie, arguably the most influential songwriter in American history — gained recognition in the late '60s for his socially conscious folk music. On the other hand, Nardolillo — a classically trained conducting prodigy — was not even born then.

Guthrie's talent is a result of good genes and a knack for translating everyday truths and general life experience into lyric-based songs, whereas Nardolillo's skill comes from years of formal schooling and a mathematical-like gift that allows him to guide numerous instruments at the same time.

Regardless of the fact that these two artists work with seemingly disparate genres of music (and come from different backgrounds and generations), the duo has forged a unique partnership.

The conductor and the folk troubadour first crossed paths in 1997. Nardolillo recalls the circumstance of their chance meeting.

"I was in New York returning some music to the New York Philharmonic for a conducting job that I had. While there, I was walking down the street and saw the billboard at Carnegie Hall. It said that Arlo Guthrie was playing that evening. I was a fan of Arlo's work — my parents were the baby-boomer types. … I definitely wanted to go to the show. It turned out that the tickets were sold-out and it had already started."

Nardolillo was determined to get in, though. At intermission, the young conductor weaseled his way into the prestigious concert hall. Nardolillo continues, "At the end of the show, Arlo was singing his dad's song, 'This Land Is Your Land.' In my head, I could hear an orchestra behind his voice. After the performance, I busted backstage and told him what I had been thinking. As it turns out, he had been thinking about the same thing."

The random occurrence led to the Arlo Guthrie symphonic project — a melding of Guthrie originals and traditional American folk standards with orchestral accompaniment. In regard to the nonlinear concept, Nardolillo says, "It allows us to occupy this middle ground between playing orchestral music and popular music, while maintaining the interesting elements of both styles."

The fascinating idea is not without its own set of challenges, however. "Coming from the folk world, Arlo is not accustomed to playing a song in such a rigid structure and format," Nardolillo says. Guthrie's informal performance style, coupled with full symphonic backing, can create a few glitches throughout a typical evening. Nardolillo explains, "Arlo often stops in the middle of songs if he thinks of a story that he wants to tell. Of course, with an orchestra it is a bigger production, and something like this might cause a train wreck for a moment. It does add to the fun."

And fun it is. Moreover, there truly is something new for everyone. "A lot of people come that have never heard the orchestra before, and then others come to hear the orchestra and have never heard Arlo before," says Nardolillo.

As much as it is entertaining, the show is also informative. The audience is treated to a unique revue of 20th-century American music. Prior to Guthrie taking the stage, Nardolillo leads his orchestra through renditions of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" and Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and "Rodeo." The strict classical intro and subsequent segue into symphonic folk pieces serves as a history lesson showing the surprising commonalities between the two genres and their overall relation to U.S. musical heritage.

Maybe the collaboration between Nardolillo and Guthrie isn't as odd as it first appeared. The hybrid experiment actually works. Nardolillo says, "The people love it — it is moving for them, they are laughing and they are cheering."


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