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HILMA - Tales from the Philly Premiere - What is an Orchestrator anyway?

So it occurs to me that my posture can be very mild mannered and I tend to either undersell what I'm doing or the thing that I'm doing is challenging for folks to understand fully. In this spirit, I'm going to lay it out a bit and hopefully it will make more sense.

So I am the co-orchestrator on this opera, HILMA. I've been working on it for over a year and an half, mostly at home in Mount Vernon, NY and primarily with the parts for instruments. Yes, I am also the performing percussionist/drummer, programmer for additional instruments and bandleader, but let's talk about how we all get to the performance.

"[T]he orchestrator's job is to develop, enhance, or complete it while adhering as closely as possible to the composer's creative vision. Depending on how much information the composer passes along, this could mean anything from assigning instrumentation and dynamics to writing entirely new chords and harmonies." (

The composer, Robert M. Johanson, carried the mantle of the other co-orchestrator as well as music director and was an actor in the piece.

What Robert sent me to do my job was Logic Pro sessions with performed music and what he had laid out for the vocals in Finale. The Logic Pro sessions had quite a number of instruments in each file. Sometimes as many as 20+ seperate instrument players. The challenge was to condense that down to 8 players (Piano, Synth, Trumpet, Trombone, Guitar, Cello and Bass).

I chose to use Sibelius to organize all of the information into this three Act piece. Having an organized landscape is so valuable to growing a piece and adapting to changes that will occur. After that I had to understand Rob's vision for the opera musically and carry it out in a way that didn't distract from the vision as I added new melodies and harmonies to fully capture the larger idea of the piece and augment the piece from what seemed like an abridged perspective.

We had the pleasure of meeting the instrumentalists at a Band Workshop and I got to learn the high capabilities of the musicians through performance of some of the pieces in the opera. This helped me write to their strengths and add challenges that they achieved brilliantly in the end. Shout out to Dan, Nina, John, Jasyn, Corinne (BW), Matt (LIVE), Jessie and Andrew!!

I brought that back to the mntlLAB and worked on the interplay between the vocals and the instruments. Concurrently I had to make a seperate score for rehearsals that had the piano parts plus inserts of the ideas I was developing for the other instruments. That's a heads up for aspiring orchestrators or those thinking to write a whole project yourself. There are quite a few scores in the development phase. Once my job is complete, I hand it all over to the Music Director (Robert M. Johanson) and the Assoc. Music Director (Dan Espie) to carry out the music to the premiere!

Hopefully this brought more understanding to what I've been up to. The truth is, the orchestrator role is only a phase in the middle of the development of the final product. But that's a masterclass in and of itself and I think a good place to pause for now. If you can make it to Philly, I highly recommend you come see this show live before it ends on June 23rd. Otherwise you can stream it until July 21st. Check out these stunning photos that Johanna Austin took of the show.


Libretto: Kate Scelsa

Composer: Robert Johanson

Director : Morgan Green

Kristen Sieh - Hilma af Klint

J Molière - Anna

Evan Spigelman - Sigrid/Amaliel

Brett Ashley Robinson - Mathilde

Sarah Gliko - Cornelia

Dan Espie - Assoc. Music Director/Piano

Nina Ryser - Synths

John Polanco - Trumpet

Jasyn Brazoban - Trombone

Matt Khan - Guitar

Jessie Reagan - Cello

Andrew Nelson - Bass

Stage Manager: Patreshettarlini Adams

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