Gary James' Interview With
Sean O'Loughlin

He's a Syracuse, N.Y. guy who has made quite a name for himself conducting some of the biggest orchestras in the United States and Canada. We're talking the Boston Pops Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Dallas Symphony, the Vancouver Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony, the Houston Symphony and the Seattle Symphony. And if that isn't enough, he's also worked with Cheap Trick, Josh Groben, Sarah McLachlan, Adele, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Hall And Oates, Natalie Merchant, Chris Isaak, Melisa Etheridge, Blue Man Group, Martina McBride, Gloria Gaynor... well, you get the idea. The man we are referring to is Mr. Sean O'Loughlin.

Q - I saw that segment on you on Carrie Lazarus' Extraordinary TV series.

A - She was very kind to do that. (laughs) My check must have cleared. (laughs)

Q - All kidding aside, up until she profiled you and your accomplishments, had anyone given you any press?

A - When I was in graduate school, Channel 9 did a feature on me probably seventeen, eighteen years ago. I had a piece performed by the Boston Pops. Mike Price used to do all those colorful stories on Channel 9. He profiled me and the symphony played the piece I had written in one of their Summer concerts. It's kind of been sporadic here and there. I've lived in Los Angeles now almost eighteen years. So, I needed to go to more fertile ground as far as opportunity goes. Now with my position with the orchestra as the Pops conductor, it's quite satisfying to be able to bring back what I've learned and be able to create some really fun and entertaining concert programs for the symphony goers. We're slowly building the audience back, maybe not quite the way it was in the heyday of the Syracuse Symphony, but we're getting a fresher crop of younger audience members. We're trying to do some programming that reflects that. Get that next generation excited about symphonies.

Q - You've got your work cut out for you, that's for sure.

A - Yeah, a little bit, but that's okay. Challenges are good in life.

Q - Thank God for Carrie Lazarus, right?

A - Yeah. She's been a real good friend of not only me but the orchestra and has just been great to the community in general as far as recognizing some of the local talent that is right in our backyard. We're really fortunate coming up with the Holiday Pops show. We're featuring two of her other performances last year and the year before, Nick Ziobro and also Julia Goodwin. They're going to join us for the big Pops concert in December. So I'm excited about that.

Q - The fact that your parents encouraged your musical talent is different.

A - Yeah, it's quite substantial, considering my dad's an accountant by trade and so often times, as I'm sure you've experienced in your career, music and numbers and music and math don't always add up. So, to have that kind of leap of faith to allow me to kind of pursue this career path... I don't think I really quite knew what my path was going to be when I ventured out. I knew it was going to be something along these lines. Originally I moved to Los Angeles to be a film composer. That kind of initial dream morphed into, okay, how can I be a working professional? So, I found a lot of behind-the-scenes work and sort of paid my dues and waited for my opportunity to get on the big stage and I've been blessed to get on some pretty big stages so far.

Q - Growing up, you played what instrument?

A - I was a trumpet player. I picked up piano a little bit along the way, but I wouldn't charge anyone to hear me play, that's for sure. I play more by ear.

Q - Did you ever play in any bands when you were growing up?

A - Not in the Rock band sense. I sat in with a couple of Big Bands on a few kind of community gigs here and there and performing in the All County and school ensembles.

Q - You went to Syracuse University and graduated with a degree in what?

A - I actually have two degrees from Syracuse, a dual major undergrad. I have a degree in both music education, so a teaching degree, and then also in composition.

Q - Larry Clark was a major influence in your life? How so?

A - Yeah. He was the Marching Director and the Director Of Bands when I was there. He really kind of opened up some possibilities for concert band writing. Then later he became the President and Vice-President at Carl Fischer Publishing. So, I still have a very strong working and mentoring relationship with Larry. I've been writing for Carl Fischer for fourteen, fifteen years now.

Q - How did you know you wanted to take that particular course at S.U.?

A - I didn't. (laughs) I think it morphed out of my freshman year. I tested out freshman theory 'cause I had taken some theory classes at Solvay in high school. So, it was starting to get a little, I don't want to say boring, but it was kind of like re-hashing material I already knew. I approached the T.A. (Teaching Assistant) another Syracuse guy, Tom Karanke, a really fabulous sax player. I kind of lost touch with Tom, but he's also a Lyncourt (New York) kid. He grew up around the corner from me. He was my T.A. for Freshman Theory. He let me take the final test about mid year and I passed it, so I had some room in my schedule as a Freshman, so I ended up taking composition lessons and that got the ball rolling in that direction for me.

Q - When you graduated from Syracuse, you immediately moved to Los Angeles?

A - No. I went to New England Conservatory in Boston and spent two years there getting a Masters Degree and really started focusing on my writing. As an undergrad you get pulled in many different directions to have a more well-rounded degree, but when you get to graduate school you obviously have a chance to specialize. So, I took advantage of that. One of the biggest decisions I made, and I didn't realize it at the time, was to make extra money I ended up getting hired as a bartender as the Boston Symphony concerts. So, I was to spend a lot of my free time listening to some of the world's greatest orchestras and getting paid for it, which wasn't bad timing at all. I got to meet some of the folks at the Boston Pops, the Boston Symphony and they in turn put me in touch with folks in Los Angeles to talk to at the Hollywood Bowl and also another kind of music production houses out here called Jolene King Music Service. They work with John Williams, Alan Silvestri, some of the top film composers in the industry to help make their film scores come to life to record. Being a bartender, I was looking to make some extra money and hear a few concerts, but it ended up setting me up quite nicely to have some contacts in Los Angeles that I was able to capitalize on. I truly believe that everyone gets one chance. It's just what you do with it when it comes. I was really fortunate to be ready with my skills and be able to capitalize on it and people seem to enjoy working with me. It's funny 'cause it's a very cut-throat world out here. There's a million people that can do what I do and so you have to find ways to distance yourself from the proverbial gaggle of folks that are really talented. So, I've been able to create a really healthy, collaborative working environment with all the artists I work with and that seems to really help procure the next job, which as a freelance musician, you're always looking for the next job. And so, it's kind of blossomed into something way more than I even envisioned when I was back in school.

Q - I've read there's a community of Syracuse University grad in Hollywood. So, when you announce you're from Syracuse, does that open doors for you?

A - I haven't experienced that first hand to be honest. (laughs) The big Syracuse connection here in the entertainment industry is more in the production and sports side of things through Newhouse, so a lot of the studios there's a fair amount of executives and production folks that have Newhouse degrees and overall studio experience. In fact, I think Newhouse has a program where they have kids come out here (Los Angeles) to do internships every Summer and every Spring as part of the program and they actually get credit for it. I kind of just, by dumb luck, have made inroads on my own. It hasn't come down to a lot of Syracuse contacts to be honest, but more so my Boston contacts have been the most fruitful.

Q - Do you have an agent or is it strictly word of mouth?

A - Well, it's a little bit of both. I've made some really nice personal and professional connections with folks in the L.A. Philharmonic who run the Hollywood Bowl and then also some private producers who put on productions here in Los Angeles. So, I've kind of carved a niche for myself. If you have a Rock band or singer or song writer who wants to perform with an orchestra and they don't have arrangements, usually one name gets tossed around to get hired for that kind of work. I'm also represented by IMG Artists, so I do have a manager who actively pursues both writing projects and also conducting projects. My conducting life is taking on a bigger part of my linear. I'm getting hired now not only to conduct my own things, but to create stand-alone Pops programs that feature me as a performer in the conducting sense. As a Pops conductor, you have to do things, you obviously have to wrangle the orchestra and provide real quality music directions, but then the secondary and the most primary role is to be a host. You become Johnny Carson up there. Not necessarily telling jokes, but trying to create an enriching environment for folks to come see an event. It's much more than a concerts, it's an event, whereas when you have a Classical program with an orchestra, that tends not to be my narration. The narration will come before the concert in some pre-concert talks, but very rarely will it happen during a performance. It's usually all about the music. There's not really any hosting element to a Classical concert, but to a Pops concert, a complete hosting element. That's something I continue to work hard on. Not necessarily something you learn in school. You have to kind of learn by osmosis as it were and just do your studying. I do a lot of research before I get on the podium for a concert to have little nuggets of information about each song we're playing.

Q - Do people ever come up to you and say, "I'd like your job", and you say what to them?

A - Yeah. I really enjoy speaking to either students or fresh professionals to use that term. It's a big industry. It's a small world, but it's a big industry and there's plenty of work for people. I've always found that the ones that work hard do tend to get work. My biggest advice to the young student that is coming out, trying to make an impact and living as a musicians is you really have to identify where your talents are and really work hard on your skill set and know what you do best. There's always a technology element to what we do. All the writing I do right now is all on computer, but the computer is just a tool. The computer doesn't write for me. It's a tool with which to write and distribute. Right now I'm working on some arrangements for a really beautiful singer / songwriter named Brandi Carlile, who is a touch on the national scene, but more in line of the Northwest. She's singing with the Seattle Symphony later this month and so I'm writing a bunch of charts for her. She doesn't really read music and a lot of those artists that I work with, Rock band types, they don't read. They're just natural and kind of gifted players and singers and songwriters, not necessarily in the Classical notation sense.

Q - You're the most educated guy, musically speaking, that I've talked to!

A - Well, the benefit of that Gary is they need me to translate into an orchestra. They typically will give me an MP3 or some type of recording of them performing. Sometimes they don't even know what the chords are, they just play. And so I'll either listen and write them out and obviously an orchestra functions in a much more technical, Classical notation world, so I have to translate it so that those Rock chords are gonna line up with what the orchestra is going to be doing.

Q - What would bring in audiences to see Symphoria (the new name for the Syracuse Symphony) would be a night totally devoted to say the music of Led Zeppelin or Lynyrd Skynyrd?

A - Well, we're actually in talks to bring some of the artists I've worked with and some others in. It sounds so simple Gary when you put it like that, but there's a lot of logistics, and unfortunately dollar signs, that come into that. That's a great idea. In fact, we're trying to get next year a couple of Rock bands that we're investigating trying to join us for the Pop series. We're actually really excited about this new amphitheatre being built on Onondaga Lake. I think that'll open up some nice Summer opportunities for the orchestra to perform with some of these bands too.

Q - Is there more opportunity for a guy like yourself with a new shows debuting on cable TV?

A - There are. In fact, some colleagues of mine work at some of those they call jingle houses that contribute a lot of music, especially to those reality series. What typically happens with those situations is that they'll create generic tracks and it'll end up being like a music library. So, those production companies will eventually hire those production houses and pay for the existing tracks that they create. So, there'll be a three minute musical track you can buy that'll be like suspense music or happy music. They kind of make these generic tracks and the TV shows end up buying them and licensing them that way versus hiring an original scoring team to go score a picture. The reality shows are smaller budgets because they're not hiring scripts and the production value is just not as high, so they look to cut corners as much as they can.

Q - How about networks like HBO, Showtime, the Lifetime Movie Network? They hire composers to write music for their original films don't they?

A - Yeah, but those typically tend to be more synthesizer scores so they're not necessarily translating into 'live' players being hired. Occasionally it is, but not that much. Not as much as we would hope for the industry, that's for sure.

Official Website:

© Gary James. All rights reserved.