The Yellowjackets Are Coming!

Youth Choral Festival’s Special Guests

The folks at Pacific International Choral Festivals (picfest) are sounding the call about the June 26th gathering of British and American forces in a genre-bending, history-hopping extravaganza: Shakespeare & All That Jazz.

The event features Grammy award-winning jazz legends the Yellowjackets, British composer and guest conductor Bob Chilcott, the 300-voice festival chorus comprising ten choirs from six states across the U.S. and, of course, William Shakespeare.

How It All Began

“When we began talking to composer Bob Chilcott about a commission for 2016, the first suggestion was to link it to this year’s 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death,” recalls Peter Robb, festival artistic director. The original concept had Chilcott setting three Shakespeare texts, the centerpiece for an entire program of the Bard’s words set to music.

Then in May 2014, the project took an unexpected turn. While visiting a prospective choir in Pasadena, Robb was introduced to Russell Ferrante, jazz pianist and founding member of the renowned Yellowjackets.

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Ferrante, who sat in at piano for a piece during the choir’s concert that night, was at dinner with the conductor and other choir staff afterward. Robb noted, “Some of the dinner conversation focused on the festival and it was clear that he had more interest and familiarity with choral music than most non-choral musicians.” By the end of the evening that spanned several hours, two restaurants and a wide-range of topics, Robb felt a kinship with Ferrante. “I imagined a collaboration between the festival and the Yellowjackets and said as much.” Ferrante left the door open by inviting Robb to send a proposal.

Robb explained the pairing. “Despite being embraced around the world, jazz is unmistakably an American music. There is also a uniquely American take on Shakespeare that is recognized throughout the world – more physical, more passionate, and committed to taking the plays off a pedestal in order to give them the immediacy they had with the original Elizabethan audiences.”

Kirk Boyd, theater director and seasonal production manager for picfest agrees. “Move the Bard three and a half centuries forward and he might be right at home in a jazz club. A very high-end jazz club, perhaps, but a genre and vibe that might have given rise to Beat Poet Willy.”

The pairing of the picfest Festival Chorus and the Yellowjackets connects a shared ethos of the Bard’s work, choral music and jazz.

The day after meeting Ferrante, Robb was on the phone with Chilcott to ask if the commission could be composed in a jazz idiom for the festival chorus and a jazz quartet. Chilcott jumped at the suggestion and the working title for the project became Shakespeare & All That Jazz.

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Over the course of the next year, Chilcott premiered the second large choral, orchestral commission in which he collaborated with British poet Charles Bennett. The chemistry of their collaboration prompted Chilcott to reimagine the picfest commission. “Virtually all choral music being written for the 400th anniversary involved setting texts from the Bard’s plays or poetry. Peter and I approach our collaborations with an eye for something unexpected,” explained Chilcott. So instead of setting three Shakespeare texts, he asked Bennett to take on the voice of three characters, Ophelia, Caliban and Miranda, which became the title of the work.

It was a year later when it finally became official: the Yellowjackets were on board.

The band, with 23 original albums, 17 Grammy nominations and two wins, has traveled a creative path spanning 35 years. From their early funk-fusion jazz to the broad ranging jazz genres of their April 2016 release, the Yellowjackets move with ease and mastery through diverse musical terrain. This special Eugene appearance is no cameo. In addition to the Chilcott premiere, Yellowjackets fans will enjoy a set by the band that includes highlights from their new album, as well as old favorites. It is their only Pacific Northwest stop during their current tour of North America, Australia and Europe.

What to Expect for 2016

The collaboration will inject a completely new aesthetic to the picfest mix. Festival participants and audiences alike are in for an exciting experience of musical alchemy.

“We’ve always had fun mixing things up a bit with our programming, but this is a very different kind of project,” observed Robb. “Bringing this incredible element into the conversation poses all kinds of new possibilities, and we are literally jazzed about this fresh twist.” Ferrante and the band echoed a similar enthusiasm for the collaboration with vocal music. “This will be the first Oregon show south of Portland since our 2011 international tour with Bobby McFerrin that included the Britt Festival and Da Vinci Days.”

The ten participating choirs come from Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Maryland, Washington and California.

The concert venue is Main Auditorium at First Baptist Church, three minutes north of Beltline off Coburg Road. “There are only a couple venues that can accommodate the 300-voice festival chorus,” explained Boyd. “Of those options, the 1200-seat Main Auditorium provides a more intimate experience with just 700 seats on the ground floor. This puts the Yellowjackets much closer to the audience in a state-of-the-art performance space.”

Purchase Tickets

Tickets are available at the Hult Center Box Office – in person, online and by phone. Tickets will also be available at the door. Seating is general admission.