Every award show worth its guest list needs a bona fide orchestra to both accompany performers and herald the arrival of guests to the stage. The APMAs was no different, acquiring the services of the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, a 115-piece ensemble who not only started the show performing a symphonic medley of all the tracks nominated for Song Of The Year, but went on to accompany Panic! At The Disco’s Brendon Urie (who later won the award for Best Vocalist) on a pair of songs made popular by Frank Sinatra, as well as contributing to performances by twenty one pilots and Fall Out Boy, APMAs’ Artist Of The Year. Jason Pettigrew talked with founding music director Liza Grossman about her feelings about the event, the aesthetic considerations involved, as well as her own personal favorite moments.
Photo: Brendon Urie rehearsing with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra by Graham Fielder
The music world AP covers is significantly different from the other collaborators the CYO has teamed up with in the past. When AP founder Mike Shea called you to enlist your ensemble, what was your initial response?
LIZA GROSSMAN: When I got the call from Mike to do the show, it felt like it was an award show where people were actually playing their instruments, singing their songs and essentially taking a shower in a glass house—being authentic about everything. To bring back sort of an old-school feel to [the APMAs], with an orchestra, kids, new music and people not afraid to “go to 11,” the show felt like celebrating the art of music. The event falls in line with the goals of the CYO: Everything is out of the box. It’s explosive, inclusive and alternative. The AP Music Awards is exactly where we were supposed to be.
CYO has collaborated with other renowned artists from Ben Folds to ’60s rockers Jefferson Starship. Was there a different kind of preparation you had to do?
It was completely different. This is our fourth time on AXS. Only one other had been a live show, but it wasn’t one that was timed with 43 or so different segments and [crew people] walking on and offstage. The timing and the preparation were completely different.
Brendon Urie singing with the orchestra for the two Sinatra songs gave the event a classic, old-school award show vibe.
Brendon. What a voice! He’s such a natural musician. It felt like our groove was dead on. Your groove has to be at the same pace when doing Sinatra. Sinatra’s so free-flowing, there has to be a connection between the vocal soloist and the band leader. It didn’t take any work at all; we were both there on the first run-through.
Sounds like you and the orchestra had a great night. No egos, no “Kid, you’re too close to my amp” stories. Have any really great ones? At the end of “The Phoenix,” Fall Out Boy drummer Andy Hurley gave his sticks to CYO drummer Aidan Kranz.
It was great. Kids got guitar picks from different musicians backstage. The artists were very respectful, and hanging out with the kids backstage. The girls were all over twenty one pilots and Brendon. They weren’t ridiculous; they just wanted a picture and to say thank you. Some of my kids told me that members of different bands walked up to them and thanked them for being there. It was pretty great to see the look on some of the artists’ faces when they would win something and they’d have their stuff played by an orchestra. That really brings home what the awards show was about: celebrating youth, music and innovation. Joan Jett gave us a shout-out in the middle of her speech!
What was your personal favorite moment of the night?
I don’t have a favorite one. Brendon was so friendly, so encouraging and so into the kids. We had such great energy with twenty one pilots. Working with MGK. Falling In Reverse with Coolio. Every group we played with was a great experience.
Two days before we started rehearsing, Fall Out Boy decided that they were not only going to play with us, they wanted to do “The Phoenix” because they used strings on their recording. I thought that was really thoughtful, that they chose to do “The Phoenix” instead of their nominated song ["My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up)”] because it would sit better with an orchestra. I liked the sensitivity and the awareness to that. I loved that awareness.
The Contemporary Youth Orchestra begin their 20th season Dec. 7. Visit cyorchestra.org to learn more, download their mixtape and help support their art.