By Kelly Dean Hansen
Despite being anointed one of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters by Paste Magazine in 2006, Josh Ritter considers himself a “learning musician.”
During an interview in advance of his appearance with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday, Oct. 10, at Macky Auditorium on the University of Colorado campus, Ritter explained that playing with a symphony orchestra requires more precision than performing a typical concert with his band.
“It’s just such a tremendous feeling to be in the middle of this large beast among all this sound,” he said. “People are playing all around you, the conductor is in the corner of your eye, and you really have to remember what you are doing. As soon as you stop to listen, you might forget the words.
“I think you’ll find that for a lot of songwriters like me, classical music has been a huge part of our lives. I played violin for many years, and I’ve collaborated with classical musicians like Hilary Hahn,” Ritter said, referring to the superstar classical violinist.
“I was never a good enough violinist to sit there in the orchestra, and I’m not that great a guitar player now. So I approach the opportunity with gratitude.”
Yet Ritter, a Moscow, Idaho, native, and his Royal City Band do not play with orchestras that frequently. Their concert with the Boulder Phil on Saturday marks the beginning of a tour to promote his new album, Sermon on the Rocks, which will be released Oct. 16, and it is the only date that includes such a collaboration,
“It’s my first show of a really long tour,” he said, “and I guess I’m going in with a bang.”
The orchestra will be conducted by the University of Colorado’s Gary Lewis in his first appearance as principal guest conductor with the Phil. Lewis recently has championed high-profile pops collaborations with his CU orchestra, including Natalie Merchant last season and the Indigo Girls in March 2016.
While the concert will include songs from the new album, which Ritter described to Paste as “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” the nature of the collaboration means the performance will include many existing arrangements.
“The majority will be my favorite things from previous orchestra shows,” he said. “The band will play on its own for some numbers, and I’ll do a couple of things solo. It will be a mix of stuff from way back until now.”
For classical audiences, one curious aspect of orchestral pops concerts is the presence of not just the singer but his band in front of the orchestra. Ritter calls the Royal City Band “an important part of the under-layer in the overall texture,” noting that his players are “fantastically trained musicians.”
As for the process of preparing orchestral arrangements of his songs, Ritter notes with some caution that as a songwriter, he leaves things such as the specifics of orchestration to his arrangers, who “know a lot more than me.” But he stressed that he maintains a level of input.
“I decide which songs will work if they are made bigger, the ones where the orchestra will contribute to the narrative,” he said. “Then I will talk to the arranger and describe what I’m looking for, certain spots where I think the arrangement needs to be different from my own — maybe the bridge is too short and an expansion would serve well with all of these instruments.”
Of arrangers he has worked with, he expressed admiration for Sean O’Loughlin, with whom he worked in appearances with the Boston Pops.
“This appearance in Boulder is our first show of a really exciting period,”said Ritter, whose tour will stop in 36 cities in October, January and February. “We come to play and we come to have fun. We want to entertain and be entertained. And Boulder is a great place for that.
“My first show there was in a hotel, and my last appearance was at Chautauqua. I’m glad to add Macky to the list. Being in Boulder is always a great way to spend a day.”
If you go
What: Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band perform with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10
Where: Macky Auditorium, 285 University Ave., University of Colorado campus, Boulder
Tickets: $25-$55 (not part of the Phil Masterworks subscription series)
Info: 303-449-1343 (ext. 2) or boulderphil.org