Rocker Rick Worrall turns to melody with new John Denver arrangements

IN CONCERT

What: Rocky Mountain High: An Evening of John Denver
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Wednesday, May 15, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $59-$89 from rmts.bc.ca, by phone at 250-386-6121, or in person at the Royal McPherson box office

The idea for an orchestral project celebrating the music of John Denver came to Rick Worrall 2 1/2 years ago, when he was asked to fill in at the last minute for the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra.

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The symphony had its lead singer in an Elton John pops concert bow out after the first of three planned shows in the Okanagan, and Worrall received the first call when they went looking for a replacement. The Kelowna musician knew John’s music well, having tackled it during his years as a cruise ship entertainer, and he covered the final two gigs for the symphony — which eventually got him thinking about an orchestral tribute of his own.

“I looked at all the people that had been done, and Gordon Lightfoot is still alive, so that wasn’t an option, and Neil Diamond had been done to death. I had no intention to dress up as John Denver, but I really thought the model and how it lent to the symphony, would be great for his music.”

The model — which pairs Worrall’s traditional folk-rock band for a night of Denver’s music with a symphony conducted by Denver’s former orchestrator, Lee Holdridge — has been a success. Worrall and Holdridge debuted Rocky Mountain High: An Evening of John Denver last year in the Okanagan, and has since performed the show in Winnipeg, Edmonton and Calgary, to rave reviews.

The production, with Holdridge conducting the Victoria Symphony, will come to Victoria for the first time Wednesday for a performance at the Royal Theatre.

“I really wanted to do this as a celebration,” Worrall said. “When I sing John Denver, it gives the audience permission to go along with it. I’m not trying to pretend to be him, so it means there is no comparison. We let the audience take it where they want to go.”

On paper, he’s an unlikely choice for such a project, having been a rocker and bluesman much of his musical life. Worrall and his brother, Stephen, who plays lead guitar in Rocky Mountain High, were recording artists on A&M in 1990, and made a record that was overseen by Huey Lewis producer Jim Gaines. Denver’s music is far more laid back, but that didn’t stop Worrall. He saw Denver perform in Toronto in 1975 and played his music often when he was an up-and-coming performer in Calgary around the same time.

“I was always drawn to melody. And John Denver, he was an incredible craftsman of melody and lyrics. Some people slammed him for being a goodie-goodie, but he was so relevant at the time. You either loved him or hated him. But I always really loved his material.”

After his experience with the music of Elton John and the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra, Worrall went looking for orchestral charts of Denver’s music, but couldn’t find anything. He contacted Holdridge, who worked extensively as a composer and orchestrator with both Diamond and Denver.

“I think he thought I was some crazy Canadian. But I figured, what the heck, I’m going to reach out to him and see if there’s charts available. I told him my idea, but didn’t expect to hear from him. An hour-and-a-half later, I got an email saying: ‘I really love your idea, let’s talk.’ ”

Holdridge was on board, but it was an 18-month process to bring the project to fruition after Worrall learned that all of Denver’s orchestral charts were destroyed after his death in 1997. Holdridge saved the day. He still had his original, handwritten scores for Denver’s music, and offered to transcribe them for the project.

Holdridge came up to direct the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra for the show’s debut. “It went over huge,” according to Worrall. “I said: ‘I think we’ve got something here.’ ”

Holdridge was the impetus behind new arrangements of Denver’s music, which are used in Rocky Mountain High. He had previously arranged songs for The Great Voices Sing John Denver, a 2013 album that featured symphony arrangements of Denver’s songs with accompaniment from a range of opera singers, including Placido Domingo.

Worrall liked the idea and decided to include opera singers on some of the arrangements for Rocky Mountain High.

Victoria tenor Nolan Kehler and Nanaimo soprano Nadya Blanchette will join Worrall (vocals, guitar), his brother, Stephen (guitar), Delphine Litke (vocals), Gary Smyth (guitar), Scott Grant (drums), Brian McMahon (bass), Chris Stevens (banjo, mandolin), Susan Aylard (fiddle) and Neville Bowman (piano) for several songs, backed by the Victoria Symphony.

Holdridge was insistent on the voices being pitch-perfect, as he was about matching Denver’s guitar stylings with those of Stephen Worrall.

“Lee said we had to nail John’s guitar, because that was how he wrote all his arrangements. That is one of the things we are quite proud of. We nailed the arrangements. They are as John would have done them at the height of his career, and with Lee on stage.

“It’s quite surreal to be doing these songs and to turn around and see this gentleman conducting the symphony, who knows John’s music so intimately.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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