By Faith Duarte
The music scene in south central Texas shines brightest in early March. Austin gets hundreds of bands from all over the globe for South by Southwest, and San Antonio gets to see some of those acts spill over into the city. However, outside of that effect, San Antonio shines a light into its own deep well of local musical talent.
On March 13, in the third installment of conductor and music Director Troy Peters’s live classic album series, the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio’s Philharmonic and twelve musical guests, ranging from R&B to bluegrass to mariachi, showcased their unique interpretations on Prince’s soaring 1984 opus “Purple Rain.”
Among the most dramatic reinventions of that night included multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Raveneau’s rendition on “Let’s Go Crazy,” where he unleashed his inner Niccolò Paganini and set the exuberant vibe for the night; post-rock outfit Bright Like the Sun’s instrumental take on the salacious “Darling Nikki;” and Mariachi Campanas de America’s surprisingly complementary take on “When Doves Cry.”
Each performance gave way to wild fanfare from audience, and never a dull moment.
Since 2015, Peters has taken the audience and musicians on a crash course in music appreciation that is deliberate by design. His series has hardened into a steadfast San Antonio institution, showcasing the orchestra as well as dozens of the city’s most diverse acts. For Peters, exposing oneself to music outside one’s personal norm makes for a more enriched musical experience overall.
“Part of my focus, in everything I do, is to encourage all listeners to go a little outside their comfort zone,” Peters says by phone in April. “I think, frequently, we kind of have our favorite styles of music, and we spend most of our time listening to that. But there’s so much great music in the world.”
This is a lesson he tenaciously imparts on his students, his guest artists and the audience.
The philharmonic is comprised of 65 of the most advanced students among the organization’s eight other orchestras, with students no older than 20 years old. At the beginning of this year’s project, most of the students had only heard of “Purple Rain” in passing.
“With each of the concerts we’ve done, it almost always starts off with them not really knowing the music well,” Peters says. “Most of them were digging into it for the very first time.”
Although, over the course of rehearsals, as the project progressed, the students fell in love with the material the deeper they delved into it, and “did a lot of listening on their own.”
“That’s fun for me, to see them expand into different types of music they’re not familiar with,” Peters says.
As for the bands collaborating with the philharmonic, the series presents an opportunity for them to become familiar with YOSA. The shows always start off with a classical piece before getting into the albums “to have the musicians involved and all our audience see another side of what we do,” Peters says.
Together, the orchestra and the musicians present the material to the audience from a fresh perspective while allowing the bands to be true to their individual styles.
“It’s not a tribute show in the sense we’re impersonating those artists. We’re asking our guest bands to just show up and be who they are and sing in their own voice,” Peters says. “I think that’s a more interesting experience for the audience, to sort of rediscover some of these songs, in some cases, with really dramatic reinvention.”
Peters was around the age of the philharmonic students when “When Doves Cry” was released as the lead single to “Purple Rain” in May 1984. It veered away from tradition popular conventions of the time, with no basslines and being primarily driven by percussion and synths.
“I remember hearing (“When Doves Cry”) on the radio in the car, before the album came out, and just being amazed by the sound of that song,” he says of first discovering it at 15 years old. “It just sounded like it was from another planet, I’d never heard any music that sounded like that before, and I was really intrigued.”
For a record that Peters says has “remained in the world’s consciousness” for 33 years and counting, this new generation of listeners ensures that the legacy of Prince and the technical genius of “Purple Rain” will endure for the foreseeable future.
From his first classic album transformation in 2015, Radiohead’s “Ok Computer,” to this year’s tribute, Peters says the process of transforming a record, especially an electronic one, to a more classical format has become easier.
“What I learned doing that was that if I just trusted my ear and spent a lot of time listening, and then tried to recreate or imitate the colors—understanding that it wouldn’t sound the same—that it’d be a new thing,” he says.
The process takes about 200 hours of orchestration and arrangement over the course of four to five months.
“Translating it for the orchestra is a fun challenge, and most of the time I’m having a blast doing it,” he says. “If I had my way I’d be doing that all the time.”
Once this is complete, next comes the question of casting, pulling together band styles to each song so that they complement one another. Then, placing the transitions from guest band to the next, like a jigsaw puzzle.
“For me, that’s probably the most fun aspect of the show: ‘What’s it going to be like when a bluegrass band does this song, or when a mariachi group does this song. How do you flow from group to group?’” he says.
Peters is always on the lookout for new acts to play the series, and for now, that includes keeping the bands as local as possible.
“We have limited ourselves to bands from San Antonio, because we really want this to be a showcase for local musicians and the local music scene,” he says.