For His Next Act, Michael McArthur Fronts an Orchestra

As a traveling singer-songwriter, Michael McArthur usually performs with just his guitar or a small band. So it will be a first on Sept. 10 when he steps onto the stage at the Polk Theatre in front of the Imperial Symphony Orchestra. 

He won’t even know what it feels like to play with an orchestra until the afternoon of the concert because that’s the the only time he’ll rehearse with the ISO musicians.

But he already has a good idea what it will sound like because Christopher Lowry, who composed the orchestra’s parts, produced electronic files combining McArthur’s voice and guitar with a synthesizer version of the orchestration. (Hear an example at the end of the video above.)

McArthur, a 31-year-old Lakeland resident, said he’s unfazed by having to wait until the day of the concert to rehearse. “There have been so many times I’ve played shows where I’ve had band members come in from out of town, and it’s just part of the gig to be ready for anything. The orchestra members and Mark Thielen, the conductor, are all seasoned professionals, and I know they’re going to bring it on the day of, and so are we.”

The “we” he’s referring to are the four members of his band who will join him onstage: Josh Davis, electric guitar; Shaun Combs, bass guitar; Alex Lacy, alto sax; Ian Goodman, drums. The ISO will be represented by a full string section, piano and percussionists — 20 musicians out of the 48-member orchestra.

Arrangements vary. Most songs include almost all of the orchestra musicians, but one employs a string quartet, and another uses just McArthur’s band.

Lowry’s score will keep the percussionists busy. It calls for suspended cymbal, tam-tam, bass drum, bongos, congas, djembe, glockenspiel, various shakers, tambourines and mark tree.

Chris Lowry
Christopher Lowry

Lowry, who splits his time between Nashville and Baton Rouge, La.,  has a history with the ISO that goes back a few years: “Mark Thielen saw a video of one of my compositions, ‘Celebration Overture,’ on YouTube, and wanted to program it, so they did the piece. The next year was their 50th anniversary and they commissioned me for a larger-scale work. And then he asked me to take this project on.”

Lowry said he was eager to work with McArthur. “From the very first time I heard any of his music, I immediately heard ideas for what the orchestra could do behind him,” he said. “There’s something interesting there. The melodies are good. The chord structure is good. The production values are good. And it’s something I can hear working just as good live as it does in the studio, and the orchestra’s just going to take it to a new level.”

The two musicians have collaborated by phone and email, but not in person. Lowry said it’s unlikely he’ll be able to come to Lakeland to hear his music performed next month.

McArthur selected the songs that will be performed and sent recordings to Lowry, who in turn composed the orchestrations.

The concert will open with an orchestral intro that Lowry said  “sets the tone for the whole show,” and segues into McArthur’s soulful take on John Lennon’s “Imagine.” All the other songs being performed are McArthur originals.

McArthur is pleased with the orchestrations, saying they add layers of emotion and texture. “It’s going to elevate the whole experience.”

McArthur has headlined two previous shows at The Polk Theatre: one in April 2015 when he debuted his latest album, “Magnolia,” and this past April, when he closed out the “Play It Forward” benefit concert.

Tickets for the concert range from $20 to $35 and can be bought online or by calling (863) 682-7553.