David Sabee has harnessed one of Seattle’s most powerful cultural resources and created a business that millions of people have heard — even if they haven’t heard of it.
Sabee’s Seattlemusic Inc. draws on a pool of about 200 classically trained musicians who come together in various configurations as the Northwest Sinfonia & Chorale to record film and documentary scores, video-game soundtracks, theme-park music and other entertainment.
“This all happens in Seattle and it has quietly happened over the past 25 years,” Sabee said.
Over the years, the Grammy Award winner and his friends and colleagues have supplied the music for around 200 films like “The Revenant,” “Wonder” and “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” You’ve also probably heard them if you play Warcraft, Halo or Gears of War. Or listened to a diverse list of musicians including Dave Matthews, Evanescence and Andrea Bocelli.
Up next? A live performance on The Who’s Moving On! tour.
Sabee, a cellist with the Seattle Symphony since 1986, is supplying an orchestra of four dozen and performing at The Who’s stop at T-Mobile Park on Oct. 19. At each stop of the U.S. tour, The Who, led by surviving members Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, plays with a local orchestra.
“Basically the orchestra that you’ll hear on stage is kind of an all-star orchestra of Seattle musicians that includes people that teach at local universities, people that play at the 5th Avenue Theatre, people that play in the pit for Seattle Opera, people that play at the Pacific Northwest Ballet or they could play in the Symphony,” Sabee said. “So, basically, it’s kind of the best of the best.”
This is not unusual in the music world. Local musicians and technicians often blend in with touring acts. Entrepreneurs like Sabee supply local players to bands like The Who because it would be prohibitive to travel with an orchestra.
Conductor Keith Levenson, who has worked with acts like The Who’s Daltrey, KISS, Meatloaf, Alice Cooper and Yes over the decades, has used the model quite a bit. It’s always something of a process and a long day as Levenson prepares each city’s orchestra, but the conductor said the Moving On! tour has gone fairly smoothly.
“It’s been great,” Levenson said from San Francisco. “I’d say we’ve had like 90 to 95 percent success. Really, really super orchestras.”
Levenson sends a Dropbox full of information and musical charts to each contractor well ahead of time. But he doesn’t meet each new orchestra until the day of the concert. He leads the musicians through the concert’s music alone. After a break, they soundcheck with the band for 15 or 20 minutes, and then they wait for show time.
“There’s no guarantee that the players are going to look at (the charts),” Levenson said. “I would say it’s maybe 25 percent who look. It’s not a lot. I mean, you can always tell. You can tell from like the first 16 bars whether they’ve looked at the music. And then I know what kind of day it’s going to be.”
And, Levenson notes, The Who isn’t playing love ballads. Though the band is a traditional rock quartet at heart, it’s always been open to experimentation. Most of the concert tour focuses on music from rock operas “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” with some of the band’s bigger hits adapted for orchestra as well.
“They’re a pretty dangerous band,” Levenson said. “The charts were written by a mutual friend of David and mine, David Campbell. They are not easy. I mean it’s not like playing Mantovani for two hours. It’s a challenge.”
Sabee knows the music by heart. A fan of the band for decades, he jumped at the chance to book an orchestra for the tour stop.
And he has no question his colleagues will handle the assignment with aplomb. He believes Seattle is among the most vibrant music scenes in the world. His orchestras have recorded music used by Matthews and Evanescence to win Grammy Awards and other composers to win Academy and Emmy awards.
Their work is used in other ways as well. They’ve also recorded music for theme parks in Dubai, Japan and Korea, for instance. There are similar well-established businesses in places like London, Los Angeles and Nashville. Yet all these folks chose to work with Seattle musicians.
Sabee believes that says something about our town.
“Seattle is as rich as they come,” he said. “The Symphony Orchestra right now is achieving new heights every year. And every time there are auditions for new positions, hundreds of people apply. And so the people that get through the process are phenomenal. Every single one of them is phenomenal. … So you’ve got a good 200 people you know out there that are ready to play a concert like The Who when it shows up.”
The Who: Moving On! tour, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19; T-Mobile Park, 1250 First Ave. S., Seattle; tickets from $50; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
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