While audiences at the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters are looking at large-scale reproductions of famous artworks, they are listening to music that is largely the real thing.
"Approximately 80% of the Pageant score is original," says composer Richard Henn. "The rest is in the public domain, but even that has to be adapted for the orchestra."
Henn, 39, who also conducts the 27-member pageant orchestra, has worked with the show for the last eight seasons.
He has composed "essentially eight different scores" because the paintings differ from year to year, he said. This year's living tableaux spectacle spotlights more than 40 works. The music lasts approximately 90 minutes.
"The music must really be the servant of the visual," Henn said. "I picked Debussy's Premiere Arabesque to accompany Renoir's 'Oarsmen at Chatou'because it's the appropriate genre and, to some extent, it captures the movement of the water. The time of composition is approximately right, too.
"But most of the music has to be tailor-made because the production makes too many specific demands," the conductor explained.
A native of Santa Monica, Henn has built a varied career, producing pop music albums for MCA records and working with artists such as Helen Reddy, the Beach Boys and Leon Russell, and also arranging and conducting classical music for the Glendale Symphony and the Laguna Beach-based Ballet Pacifica. He said writing for the pageant has "made me stretch. I've written music in classical, romantic and Renaissance styles."
In fact, Henn has even orchestrated his first pop hit record, "I Live for the Sun," recorded in 1965 by his group, the Sunrays, to accompany Robert Blumhagen's "Goin' Surfin' " in the current pageant.
But Henn's responsibilities don't stop at composing, arranging and conducting.
He has to assemble virtually a new orchestra every year. "Everyone is classically trained and experienced on many levels," Henn said. "They have to have exposure to all the genres and have sight-reading skills as well."
Henn also has to cue the lighting director while he's conducting.
"There's no other way to go because the music and the lighting are so tightly coordinated," Henn said. "I work with headphones and give the lighting director the signal for his cues."
The musicians also have to cope with certain disadvantages:
For one thing, the orchestra is completely covered by a tarp so that it is not visible to the audience. ("Sometimes it can get pretty hot under there," Henn said.)
An additional problem involves working outdoors "where there is no resonance," Henn said.
"The sound dissipates into the void, and the musicians can't even hear their stand partners. So it's very difficult for them even to find the pitch center.
"The headphones give me the sound system perspective, so I'm listening to what the audience hears. There's a very large difference between that and what the orchestra hears. The musicians have to trust me even though the music might not sound right to them."
Because the small orchestra is "shy on strings," Henn uses a synthesizer to produce sonic "tricks," he said.
"The synthesizer helps correct imbalances and make the sound more accurate. And it duplicates the gamelan sound we need for the 'Temple Art of Java' sequence."
Still, Henn admitted having mixed feelings about using a synthesizer instead of live musicians.
"Using a synthesizer has got to be a threat for acoustic musicians," Henn said. "But it's the wave of the future.
"One third of the pageant budget--which is about $750,000--goes to the music budget. We can't afford more musicians, even though we could fit more in the pit.
"But this is one of better and more consistent jobs in Orange County. It gives local musicians 50 to 55 nights of employment. All are from Local 7. That's one of the requisites of the job, as a result of negotiations with the (Festival of Arts) board here."
Aida Baker, who has been concertmistress with the pageant orchestra for seven years, concurs that the job has been very rewarding:
"There have been a lot of financial rewards, yes," Baker said. "A musician can't count on a year-round job, and this is a great summer festival. But there's a lot more to it than the financial side. Artistically, what we do and how we do it is very satisfying, too. Richard is a marvelous conductor, and I enjoy playing for him very much. I am consistently very happy with the job."