The thought of performing as a soloist in front of a world-class orchestra would make most long-haired rockers quake in their snakeskin boots.
Not guitarist Tony Spada. Not one bit.
Spada will be the featured soloist when the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Carolyn Kuan, performs composer Michael Daughtery’s Gee’s Bend, a concerto for electric guitar and orchestra. There are four performances planned between November 8-11.
“I got invited to be the guest soloist, so I guess they were looking to get somebody in there who could do it,” Spada told the Advocate by phone from his home in East Hartford. “I guess I was kind of voted in.” He sounded about as nervous as someone ordering coffee at a Starbucks drive-in window.
That’s because Spada is a pro. He’s played alongside Yes members Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman and Dixie Dregs/Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse (also a personal friend of Spada’s). He’s a graduate of the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music, a founding member of Holding Pattern, a prog-rock band with a following in Europe and Asia, and a Progressive Rock Hall of Fame inductee. All of which points to the fact that Spada shreds.
It’s also not his first time playing with the HSO; Spada performed original compositions at the Preludes Gala back in September, then again in Bushnell Park a week later. “[Carolyn Kuan] has seen me play twice, and she was pretty knocked out,” Spada said. “She really likes the guitar. They’re just really happy to have me in there.” The current HSO gig coincides with a rare, open window in the guitarist’s schedule, usually filled by a Holding Pattern tour. “I decided to take the summer off to finish writing this new album, and we recorded a live album from the tour. I thought I needed to stay off the road, because these records aren’t going to get done by themselves... Now I’m not getting the work done because of this [HSO] thing.”
Spada likes Daughtery’s writing for the electric guitar, with a few caveats. “Obviously the guy knew something about the nature of the instrument itself, but some of the things I questioned were some of the tonal centers, where he had you solo over,” Spada said. He cited a passage in the first movement, where Daughtery calls for the guitarist to play in a certain key and mode that Spada would never use. “It’s very un-guitar-istic,” Spada said. “You can stretch it and make it work, but it’s like, eh... It doesn’t sound nasty enough.” He planned to talk to Kuan over the weekend to sort some things out, and he’s trying to stick to what the composer wrote. Will he?
“We’re going to find out,” Spada said. (Cue evil laugh.)
Daughtery’s Gee’s Bend was inspired by the spirituals of Gee’s Bend, Ala., a hamlet known for its quilting tradition, which extends back to early 19th-century African American communities on Joseph Gee’s cotton plantation. It’s not one of those works that asks an electric guitar to be a violin; Daughtery wanted folk, blues, rock. This weekend, the concerto is programmed between Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, one of the masterworks of American music, and Antonín Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88, a work of Czech origin that’s no less pastoral. It’s a program that spans eras and geographies but holds together.
It’s hard to read Spada’s take on Gee’s Bend. “It’s pretty cool. I get a couple of solo cadenza parts in, I think, three of the movements,” Spada said. “In one of them I’m just playing chords. It’s a woodwind solo or something, and I’m just hacking chords. It’s nice because they gave me a bit of room to do my own solos.” In classical music, cadenzas — passages designed to allow virtuosic soloists to get a little flashy — are often written out by the composer, or if the soloist plans to improvise, they usually give some thought beforehand as to what they plan to do. That’s not Spada’s style. “I just improvise. That’s my thing. I never, ever, on any of my records, write out solos... You just wank.”
He’s also more comfortable with complex chord changes, which aren’t found in Daughtery’s concerto. “The composer is really, really asking for rock guitar, Jimi Hendrix-type things. I started out playing like that when I was a kid. It will be some sort of Hendrix mutation. I’m using a lot of the pentatonic minor scale, but I play with guys like Steve Morse, and they’re more technical. I’m trying not to make it too over the top... I was throwing arpeggios in there. I’m not going to turn this into one of these prog-metal things.” Like, say, Swedish rock-classical guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen? “Yeah... A million miles an hour. Now it’s a million miles an hour, but more in the Hendrix style: Johnny Winter meets Steve Morse meets Ritchie Blackmore.”
When this gig is through, Spada will return to Holding Pattern. He’s available for private lessons in all styles (around his touring schedule), and he also supplies short music clips to television shows, including “NY Ink” and “Pawn Stars,” who then pay his publishing company for each snippet in syndication. But the sound of working with an orchestra will most likely stay in his ears for a while.
“A lot of my stuff is symphonic-sounding, but of course it’s orchestrated with digital keyboards,” Spada said. “I’ve written a lot of pieces for classical guitar and strings. So for me, I would have liked to do something with a small orchestra and some of my tunes... There’s nothing like playing with real strings. We used to drag a Mellotron around we bought from Rick Wakeman... But to play with a real orchestra is awesome.”
HSO Masterworks Series: Appalachian Spring, w/Carolyn Kuan, music director and conductor; Tony Spada, electric guitar, Nov. 8-11, $35.50-$70.50, Belding Theater, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford, (860) 244-2999, hartfordsymphony.org.