- PHOTO BY ANNE MARSDEN COURTESY OF MARIA JETTE
SLO Symphony Musical Director Michael Nowak remembers well the first time he heard the angel voice of soprano Maria Jette: “It just knocked my socks off how good she was, and what a creative spirit she is. I had to get her down to San Luis Obispo.”
The director also recalls Jette’s first local performance with the symphony, back when El Niño was in full force (“Poor girl!” he laughed), trapping some of the musicians in a waterlogged Los Osos as the storm pelted the county with the contents of the Pacific Ocean.
NPR listeners will recognize Jette’s crystalline voice from Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and her sparkling personality and knack for booking gigs through unexpected avenues—eBay, a funeral—have led her to tackle everything from Dr. Suess’ Green Eggs and Ham to Handel’s Messiah with equal exuberance.
- PHOTO BY ALAN FRASER
Ever since that first soggy weekend in 1990, the St. Paul, Minn., singer has collaborated frequently with the SLO Symphony, even accompanying them on a trip to Australia to perform at the Sydney Opera House.
And on Friday, Dec. 31, as the old year slips away, Jette and the SLO Symphony will sing its farewell with an eclectic selection of waltzes, an original arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and the eerily beautiful “Think of Me” from Phantom of the Opera.
The New Year’s Eve Pops concert at the Performing Arts Center arrives as the SLO Symphony celebrates its 50th season, and couldn’t be in better shape, if you ask its director: “The orchestra is at the highest level we’ve ever performed,” Nowak said.
- PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
In her Dec. 31 concert, Jette will sing selections culled from that unofficial canon of music called the Great American Songbook: songs dating from the World War I era through the end of the ’50s. And as the New Year is generally associated with waltzes, Jette and the symphony will perform selections by American waltz master Richard Rodgers, kicking off with “Do I Hear a Waltz?” followed by “Lover.”
“‘Lover’ is an interesting one because it’s one of those pieces that has taken on a life of its own,” Jette said from her hotel room in Appleton, Wisc., where she was rehearsing Messiah. Originally written as a waltz, the tune has often been appropriated by “the jazz people,” she said. “I’m sure it will be a relief to the spirit of Richard Rodgers to hear ‘Lover’ done as a waltz.”
Jette will also sing a “poignant, sweet love number” called “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”
For her birthday one year, Jette’s husband gifted her with a new arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Jette talks about the piece as if it were a slinky dress, calling it, “a beautiful, really glamorous arrangement … with a very fancy piano part and string quartet.” That number is lined up as well.
“I’m a terrible pianist,” Jette told me in our phone interview. “Even just talking about it, my palms start to sweat.”
Jette leaves the piano playing to Cal Poly grad Alexander Kato-Willis, who performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. In a concert named for its potpourri of popular orchestral music, his is the only classical piece.
But Kato-Willis, who now studies in Los Angeles, insists there’s really no difference between modern and classical music, saying, “If you’re making music well, it’s always contemporary, regardless of what piece you’re playing. … Every time you come to it, it’s different.”
The young pianist, who specializes in improvisation, deliberately doesn’t practice every day: “If you practice nonstop, you’re only training your mind in relation to your fingers and the music, whereas if you do nothing, you’re able to think about the philosophy.”
The concert draws to a dramatic close with a simulcast of the ball dropping on New York’s Times Square—at 9 p.m. West Coast time.
The remaining three hours of the year are left to you.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner’s New Year’s Eve plans are classified information. Have a guess at firstname.lastname@example.org.