A few years ago, jazz pianist and University of Oregon music professor Toby Koenigsberg approached trumpeter and fellow faculty member Brian McWhorter to help him create a mixed genre concert series he was trying to put together. McWhorter suggested a show in which Grammy-nominated songs were performed right before “Music’s Biggest Night.” But by the time the project was ready to go in 2014, McWhorter found that he could no longer play trumpet due to a performance injury.
That didn’t stop them. With Koenigsberg’s encouragement, McWhorter, who is recognized on and off campus for his wit, sense of humor, and more than a bit of showmanship, realized he could emcee instead of playing. And that decision turned the project into “a kind of variety show, with comedy, theater, and music all included,” Koenigsberg recalls. The UO School of Music and Dance’s satirical production of the “Gr*mmy Show,” a zany, fun-filled evening with McWhorter as MC and Koenigsberg as musical director, was finally ready for primetime. (They changed its original name from “Grammy Show” after The Recording Academy sent the team a cease and desist letter.)
The Gr*mmy Show has evolved into a much-anticipated evening of variety acts. Show-stopping edutainment sketches have always been included, such as a humorous analysis of the seemingly complex voting process for Grammy award winners, and exploring the “fun side” of Schenkerian analysis — a music theory subject as exciting as burnt toast. Academicians always tend to get a good ribbing on this night as when music theorist Jack Boss “mistakenly” began to pontificate about the musical structure… of what he would quickly learn from emcee McWhorter was the wrong song.
Balancing out the humorous academic side of the evening is the performance of many musical selections nominated for the Grammys, including not only Song of the Year, but also pieces from other categories such as New Age, Pop, Jazz, Rap, Reggae, World Music and the Best Classical Contemporary Composition and Best Musical Theater album.
Some program segments lampoon musical nominations, as when Partita, a four-legged guest in 2016, howled out a popular tune with percussionist Pius Cheung on marimba, much to the audience’s delight. Other segments have addressed more serious issues with a touch of humor, including last year’s #metoo movement and how it affected public perception of the awards show itself.
Over the years, Koenigsberg has shifted the music from being performed by a house band to that of a rotating roster of outstanding student ensembles and soloists. Although this year’s program has not been finalized, and won’t be until the last minute, some student groups have been booked. Mind the Gap (an inclusive, co-ed a cappella group established in 2008) and the Hip Hop Ensemble will perform most of the musical numbers. “The Hip Hop Ensemble is heavily featured in part because 2018 was a big a year for hip hop, with a lot of music in the trap sub-genre topping the charts,” Koenigsberg notes. And, not to give too much away, there will be a premiere screening of a surprise short film at this year’s show. (Update: The surprise comedy film, The Trumpet Lesson, featuring never-before-seen footage of the original trumpet lesson, is now available on YouTube.)
Sometimes there can be an unexpected poignant moment in the evening’s program. Once, McWhorter thought it would be funny to sing a song about not being able to play the trumpet again. “Like a funeral for my career or something,” he told ArtsWatch. What better song to use than that year’s nominated “Let it Go” from Disney’s film Frozen. His version, called “Let it Go, Trumpet Blow,” still makes him laugh.
Let it go, trumpet blow – no more warming up at dawn
Let it go, trumpet blow – maybe I’ll mow the lawn
The problem was that when he went to sing the chorus, “I fell apart,” McWhorter remembers. “It was a super cathartic part laugh – part cry kind of performance for me.” At the end, his colleague and fellow performer that evening, flutist Molly Barth, embraced him, as did the audience.
The Gr*mmy Show, 8pm, Saturday, February 2. Aasen-Hull Hall (RM 190) UO School of Music and Dance, 961 East 18th Ave. Eugene. Admission: free.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.
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