The Bijou Orchestra

Closes Out Season with a Tribute to Pop Classics on March 13-14 & Hot Latin Infusion on April 10-11

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Local Music,   From Issue 700   By: Robert E Martin

11th March, 2010     0

Over the expanse of his storied career, Maestro Leo Najar has embraced the embraced the inherent fluidity of musical structure in a manner respectful of the stylistic nature of its origin, yet mindful of the transcendence that can be achieved through experimentation.

Throughout his 23-year tenure with the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra, and since he established The Bijou Orchestra back in 2003 as the only ensemble of its kind in the country producing a regular concert series, Najar has consistently cultivated new faces and generations of audience through his belief that fresh interpretation is an axiomatic factor that keeps the pulse of Classical music alive, as opposed to relegated to the museum of history books.

To close out its 2009-2010 season, The Bijou Orchestra is presenting a pair of concert performances drawing upon elements of Classic Rock and heated Latin rhythms and idioms that mark an exciting excursion for the ensemble.

First, The Bijou turns to classic rock music of the 60s through the 80s in a concert entitled “Acoustic Rock” to be held on Saturday, March 13th at 8pm and March 14 at 2pm in the State Theatre in Bay City. The band Cairn to Cairn, keyboardist Dan ‘Swivel’ Sliwinski’ and guitarist/songwriter Jeff Yantz will also join the Bijou. 

“This won’t be the first time The Bijou plays rock music, of course, because rock is just one of the many styles we perform in.” says Leo Najar, artistic director of The Bijou. “But this is the first time we are building a concert entirely around a rock theme. Our concert won’t feature “original treatments” in the orchestral tradition. We won’t be doing that, and we also won’t be trying to recreate the performance styles of the different bands whose work we will feature.”

“Our focus is on the process of recording popular favorites.  The songs we are playing are mostly songs that featured entire bands or parts of bands that brought “orchestral” instruments into their mix. The most famous example of this is probably the Beatles’ “Yesterday” which added a string quartet to McCartney’s solo guitar.”

“There is a great variety of music like that which we perform,” continues Najar.  “We will be doing songs by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Paul Simon, Cindy Lauper and several others.”          

‘Another portion of the show will feature some of the orchestral influenced songs that have been popular (and yes, that includes a disco song from the 70’s). We will also feature Cairn to Cairn guitarist Terry Farmer in “Classical Gas.”

Two Bay City area musicians will join The Bijou to perform their songs. Dan “Swivel” Sliwinski will play keyboards on his song “Beginnings” which once served as a theme song for a local television program. Guitarist/harmonica player/song writer Jeff Yantz, long a member of the band “One Trick Ponies,” and currently playing with Scott Baker and the Universal Expressions will play “Dreamer 29” in an original orchestration created for him and The Bijou.

Following upon the heels of this weekend performance, The Bijou will focus upon their season finale, presenting Ritmo Caliente: Music With a Latin Flair on Saturday, April 10th and Sunday, April 12th, featuring guest percussionist Eddy Garcia.

“The excitement and beauty of Latin musical expression has been an important part of music for hundreds of years beginning with the Spanish dances that become a part of the suites composed by English Elizabethan composers and later, J.S. Bach,” notes Leo.

“During the 19th and early 20th century, the Tango, Samba and Habañera found their way to Europe where composers such as Ravel, Milhaud and deFalla merged them into the classical tradition.”

“Beginning in the 1950s, American audiences began to discover the Bossa Nova, Reggae and Calypso music, and more recently, music of Cuba and Central America. Rhythmic energy, sensual melodies and exotic colors are intrinsic to Latin music as we will hear, and our guest artist, Eddy Garcia will demonstrate the unique musical contribution of Latin percussion to world musical language.”

“It's going to be an exciting concert, no matter what kind of music is your favorite. This one promises non-stop excitement for our Season Finale.”

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Garcia was the youngest of 10 brothers and sisters. He grew up surrounded by musicians and music. As a graduate of the Julia Richman High School for the Performing Arts ("Talent Unlimited") in Manhattan, he spent many years playing with various artists in R&B and Latin music, including Sandy Reyes and Freddy Kenton.

In 1990 Eddy moved to Puerto Rico and broke into the music scene there. By 1991 he began playing percussion with the Grammy-winner Olga Tanon, and in 1996 Eddy became Musical Director of Olga's own “Tañon Band”. He is currently endorsed by Pearl Drums.

For the ‘Latin Infusion’ performance, the Bijou will also be bringing in gifted percussionist Jesus Andujar from the Dominican Republic, in addition to pianist and bass player Richard Marcell from Puerto Rico, with several of the groups he has worked with also securing Grammy awards.

In 1998 Eddy co-wrote, produced and recorded his own CD, Down To Earth, with an innovative, groundbreaking style fusing Merengue with Hip-Hop and R&B that has yet to be matched.

Beginning with the Acoustic Rock performance coming up March 13th, what can people expect in terms of the musical treatments the orchestra will be giving to the material of some fairly heavy hitters like The Rolling Stones, Chicago, and The Beatles?

“We aren’t doing our own original versions of the originals, but we aren’t exactly a tribute band, either,” explains Leo. “Tributes try to recreate the stage performances of famous musicians. In a sense, we are trying to recreate their recording process. We have several musicians performing vocals, guitar parts, and so on, then we use members of the Bijou to recreate the ‘extra’ musicians brought into the studio to provide colors and instrumental accompaniments.”

“My approach is to remain faithful to the sound & texture of the originals, but without trying to recreate them precisely. This kind of approach is the same that classical musicians bring to performing familiar scores of Beethoven, Mozart and others. That doesn’t mean that we don’t occasionally extend upon the original; because in a few places we expand the orchestrations to extend the original sonorities. Cost may have been a consideration in the original situations, but since we have players available, we’ll use them. But I can’t promise there won’t be any ‘The 101 Strings Perform Steppenwolf Favorites’ sort of performances.”

Leo finds several factors that distinguish the featured local musicians that will be showcased as strong collaborators with the Orchestra.

“When I returned to Bay City in 2003 to found The Bijou, I came to understand that the great joy of music making lies in collaboration,” he reflects. “ I’ve traveled the world conducting professional symphony orchestras, but never had an experience that was as precious to me as the ones I had with the Saginaw Symphony in the old days and with The Bijou today. After all, conductors don’t produce any sound; they collaborate with others who make the music, so the collaboration is in the head and heart, but not sound. So it follows that the best collaborations reflect a deeper connection.”

“I happened to pick the two working with me on this concert because I’ve known them for a long time,” he continues. “Swivel and I met many years ago when I used to hang out with Count ‘n the Change’ when they were playing in Bay City. He sent me a copy of his song that once served as the theme song for Delta Televisions’ Day By Day’ with Andy Rapp. I liked the song and equally important, thought it would sound great with the Bijou’s resources as a support.”

“Jeff Yantz and I have been members of the Bay City Rotary Club for a long time. I knew that he was a musician, but it was only recently that I found out he is still performing and recording. So I started with these two and then a broad mix of other music from the ‘60s through the ‘80s that I think will sound good with the orchestra.”

With the last performance of the Bijou season focusing on Latin Music on April 10th, drawing in noted Latin musician Eddy Garcia, what prompted Leo to cultivate this collaboration?

“I’ve always liked Latin music of all kinds, and have always been intrigued by the fact that the New World was exporting its own musical styles back to Europe by the middle of the 19th Century – long before Jazz became known as an American musical export.”

One example is the ‘havanaise’ – a dance which figures prominently in familiar classical European pieces such as the opera ‘Carmen’.  As the name tells us, this musical form comes from Cuba. Like the Tango and the Samba, two other New World exports, the dance was a mixture of European classical elements (particularly harmony) African elements and some of the rhythmic and melodic influences of indigenous people. These forms were born here and refined in Europe. They then returned here where they continued to evolve.”

“For the second half of the show, I wanted to play with the idea that this East/West collaboration continues even though the styles seem very different from the 19th century tradition.  I turned to Eddy because his wife, Vickie Bowden, is the clarinet/saxophonist in The Bijou. We’re going to be doing some exciting stuff. He’s also bringing in a couple other artists including a singer from Havana and another percussionist who is from the Dominican Republic. Both of these shows are going to rock!”

So how do these final performances culminate the direction that Leo views the Bijou evolving towards?

“Both of these shows are indicative of the ways that The Bijou is growing. When we started, we focused on history. The band is composed of 13 players and our repertoire was that of vaudeville, silent film, ragtime and early swing orchestras from the period 1880 to roughly 1930. We played from original arrangements and took great pride in our ability to play a program that could contain music by Beethoven, Joplin and any number of early swing bands, and have all the repertoire feel and sound authentic.”

“At first people were drawn to us by that historical style, but I came to understand that it was the variety that formed the real appeal. We began to broaden the variety to include baroque music at one end of the spectrum and klezmer, Rock, and Celtic at the other.”

“Our strength as an ensemble is that we can play an awful lot of different music well; and we continue to refine our interpretation of those styles. We are working on improving our ability to improvise and to play off of each other the way jazz, country and rock bands do. But we still rock on Wagner, too.”

How difficult is it to draw modern audiences into the vast depth and richness of classical and contemporary orchestra music?

“I think audiences have a wider curiosity about music at this point in time that other before,” states Leo. “30 years ago public radio was all classical with a little grudging jazz thrown in overnight and on weekends.  That has changed all around the country. Lovers of music have learned there are many kinds of good music, of which classical is only a part.”

“The key lies in getting people into the hall. Mostly nobody expects a rich variety of styles in a live setting, regardless of what genre of music we are talking about. That’s due to the limitations of skills each genre calls upon. Its hard to make a funky ensemble out of 80 strings. You can do it for a special occasion, but nobody who likes funk is going to ask for it from the Philharmonic.”

“Likewise, it’s fun when rock tries to create big forms – Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody for example – but those skills don’t translate into the ability of Queen to play a movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

“By and large, we can do that, and I think that is what is helping us to build audiences. We’re like Michigan’s weather: if you don’t like it’s style, hang on, because in 10 minutes it’s going to completely change!”

Tickets for the concert are $10, $20, $25 and $30. Ticket information is available at by calling the State Theatre Box Office at (989) 892-2660 or online at Tickets will also be available at the door.



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