Creating Soundscapes First Soundscapes Jeannine: Please tell us about your early years as the co-founder of Mannheim Steamroller. Where did the idea to create a "new and unusual" sound for classical music come from? Mr. Berkey:The "new and unusual sound" of Fresh Aire was developed by Chip Davis while teaching music to junior high and high school students in Sylvania, Ohio. Chip combined classical elements with popular music elements in an effort to keep his students attentive and to learn some of the elements of classical music through listening to pop music. The most obvious musical element added was, of course, the harpsichord, which immediately implies "classical" to both knowing and unkno wing listeners. This was all happening during the time period when Mason William's "Classical Gas" was a major hit across the USA. J: With a master's degree in piano performance from Julliard, your work with Mannheim Steamroller was certainly a huge step out of the classical piano performance box. Your first Fresh Aire album intrigued this then college music major and still does today. Please tell us more. Mr. Berkey: Chip Davis and I met while we were both touring with the Norman Luboff Choir...he, as a member of the tenor section; and I, as tour pianist. In between tours Chip and I roomed together and he began writing piano pieces for me to play. The first of these were the four "Fresh Aire Interludes" which appeared on Fresh Aire I. The music of Fresh Aire I was written at Norm Luboff's suggestion with the understanding that it would be recorded and produced in a Los Angeles studio by top studio players ... mostly as a learning experience for me and Chip. That idea did not materialize, so Chip and I recorded the first Fresh Aire album in "off evenings" while writing and producing commercials for sound recorders in Omaha, Nebraska. The first Fresh Aire album was recorded on 2-inch, 16 track tape using the latest technology available at the time (1973-1975). J: I love the idea of using all sorts of keyboard instruments in the Fresh Aire albums -- especially the pipe organ in Toccata in G. How were these keyboard choices made? Did you have a particular sound in mid? Where was Toccata first recorded? Mr. Berkey: Toccata, of course, had to be recorded on a large pipe organ...from the initial writing, this was a requirement, as was the use of acoustic strings and acoustic harpsichord throughout the Fresh Aire project(s). Sound recorders had a studio in Kansas City as well as Omaha, and the studio managers in Omaha and Kansas City made arrangements for us to record Toccata on the 129-rank Aeolian Skinner organ in the International Assembly Hall of the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints in Independence, Missouri. J: What were you doing when the "light" came on and you and Chip said, "Hey, we need to create and record a Christmas album with Mannheim Steamroller." Mr. Berkey: The first Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album was produced out of necessity. Almost all artists in the last part of the 20th-century produced Christmas albums to have a "seasonal product" to sell for Christmas, and to gain airplay during the Christmas season, November-December. The sudden impact of "Deck the Hall(s)" was not anticipated. We were in Salt Lake City doing a Fresh Aire tour when "Deck" skyrocketed on the "Billboard" charts! Present Soundscapes J:You have so many "soundscapes" in your amazing career including your work as a composer with over 300 compositions in your oeuvre. You are described as a "21st-century Romantic" with your own writing style. How do you describe your style and what can one expect to hear in your keyboard music? Mr. Berkey: First, I do not describe myself in this way. I hold a great amount of respect for all of the composers whose music I grew up studying and performing. Here in the 21st-century I believe I a m one of few composers actively continuing patterns set by Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Prokofieff ... composers who wrote and performed their own works. I guess the "21st-century Romantic" moniker comes from the influences of those composers in my music. Some of it is immediately obvious; and at other times, it simply seems to be my style of writing. All of it is also influenced by my many years of playing the music of Mannheim Steamroller -- most especially the rhythmic aspects which permeate my music. J: Of course I am intrigued by the Organ Concerto. Please describe this work for the organists among our readers. Mr. Berkey: My Organ Concerto from 2004, was written on commission from John Friesen who, at the time, was principal organist at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. It is in three movements of equal length, written in a "Handelian" style with much interplay between the reeds of the organ and the flute and oboe of the orchestra. The concerto is about 26 minutes in duration and is scored for solo pipe organ with solo flute and oboe. The score also calls for 4 percussion (including two mallet players), timpani, and strings. The middle movement is a "Fantasy of Amazing Grace" and may be extracted if desired. For those interested in the work, the score and a recording are available through our website, www.berkey.com. J: The 24 Nocturnes for piano are simply divine. What an amazing group of pieces you have added to piano repertoire. Please tell us about this ten-year project. Mr. Berkey: The 24 Nocturnes are now complete and in print from SDG Press (SDG 15-200). These solo piano works are available separately, or in a single-book collection including extensive performance and background notes for all 24 works. They are also now available as a 2-CD set from SDG records, "Jackson Berkey's 24 Nocturnes" (SDG DC15 1-2). Performance time of the complete set is about 2 hours. J: One of your newest compositions, Piano Concert Easter 2015 was premiered in April in Omaha, Nebraska by Anne Madison. Please tell us more. Mr. Berkey: I offered to write this work as a gift to a friend, pianist Anne Madison, head of piano at the Omaha Conservatory of Music. I had heard Anne play the Rachmaninoff 2nd concerto about 6 years ago and she was invited again to perform with the same orchestra and conductor in the spring of 2015. Anne often visits my studio in Omaha and has always shown an interest in my piano writing, both through her performances and by teaching my music to her students. She was searching for a concerto that would be suitable to perform with this good community orchestra and was "undecided" as to the work that would hold her interest for the time period required to learn and memorize it. I suggested a few concertos for her to consider and, when meeting her later and discovering that she was still undecided, I offered to write one for her. She was immediately intrigued and secured permission from the conductor of the orchestra to proceed. I presented her with the 2nd half of the concerto in the summer of 2014, and with the 1st half "Fantasy on Hymn Tunes" in January of 2015. I made the entire first half of the concert a "Fantasy on Hymn Tunes" because I knew of Anne's deep love for Christ and her strong Christian witness. As it turns out, it is a perfect vehicle for her artistic temperament, her technique and her passionate performing spirit. J: What sets this piece apart from the myriad of piano concertos in the repertoire? Mr. Berkey: It is an individual work having an individual voice and strong evangelistic affect on its listeners. Initially, let it be said that technically this concerto has pianistic demands that are the equal of many works in the standard concerto repertoire. The detail and high level of interplay between the piano and orchestra is a challenge happily achieved in a minimum of rehearsal with a professional orchestra. A concert artists approaching this work will find much challenge and reward. For audiences it is fully listenable from beginning to end with many moments that are deeply emotional and moving. Perhaps one of its most important characteristics is the immediate connection that it makes with a listening audience. Especially in the first movement, which seems immediately familiar, the music is a mixture of older hymn tunes of the church, not often heard today. These are combined with some of the deepest expressive elements from my earlier Easter cantata, A Messenger Named John. The artistic pacing of the concerto was given great consideration. The placement of a five and a half minute cadenza near the end of the work is an almost magical experience for the audience. Unlike most cadenzas, the orchestra re-enters and accompanies the last quarter of the cadenza prior to a rousing "maestoso" which eventually unwinds, relaxes, and brings the concerto a quiet end.J: An interview with Jackson Berkey would not be complete without talking about your choral compositions and your work with your wife, Almeda and the choir, Soli Deo Gloria Cantorum. Especially intriguing to me is the Carnegie Hall Series. Mr. Berkey: Almeda and I received an invitation through Jonathan Griffiths, then with MidAmerica Productions of New York City, to perform our Easter celebration, Come, Follow Me! for the first appearance at Carnegie Hall. I expanded the existing instrumentation (Pf, Org, Perc I-II-III) to full symphony orchestra, expanding the organ part to full orchestral winds, brass, and strings; and reducing the piano part to a more appropriate "orchestral" piano part. This has been my procedure for each of our concert at Carnegie Hall. Works later performed there include South Dakota Shadows, Crucifixus & Cantate 2000, American Journey, Thoughts and Remembrances. Performances of these works took place over a period of ten years, with a presentation occurring every other concert season. We are hoping in the future to present our Christmas cantata, The Glory of His Majesty. Future Soundscapes J: What innovative musical thoughts/ideas will Jackson and Almeda Berkey bring to the music world in the future? Mr. Berkey: Almeda will be searching for texts for me to consider for a work for tenor, piano, and string quartet to be premiered in the Spring of 2017. I am currently completing the 6th of my "21st-Century Carols" .. this being an up tempo version of "The Good King" -- a setting of Good King Wenceslaus for SATB Chorus with piano, percussion, string quartet and Bass. Also, I have just this summer sent a work, "Lumen", for string orchestra and hidden voices to Margarita de Lorenzo Reizabal, conductor of the Conservatory Orchestra at the Leoia Conservatory outside Bilbao, Spain. This work, based on my choral "Nunc Dimittis", features the string orchestra, the plays of which, while playing the opening of the piece on their string instruments, also simultaneously sing the ancient Gregorian Chant, "Lumen". J: How would you like to see the younger generation (post-millennials) get involved in music? Digitally, IPad, piano lessons? Mr. Berkey: Any and every way possible, especially listening and understanding. There is simply no way to measure the impact that music may have on a human life. music is a gift from God that surpasses all human language.
J: Thank you to Jackson and Almeda for their kind and generous hospitality in their lovely home overlooking Washington's Hood Canal for this interview. What a blessing and privilege to come to know these two incredibly sensitive and amazing musicians.