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A sonic sauciness

September 18, 2003|Victoria Looseleaf | Special to The Times

Ross WRIGHT, a.k.a. Elvis Schoenberg, is stirring the pot. But though his homemade spaghetti sauce, its pungent aroma wafting through the air, may be assaulting olfactory senses, it's the sound of 20-odd musicians tuning up -- violins, trumpets, woodwinds, percussion, electric guitars and keyboard -- that nearly blows the roof off his tiny Highland Park home.

The grub is for his band, the Orchestre Surreal, and recognizable riffs from Bizet's "Carmen" and Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" jostle for prominence with the kind of complex 12-tone dissonance found in Arnold Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder." Indeed, when the 6-foot, 2-inch Wright moves from kitchen to living room, puts on a pair of amber-tinted specs, dons an animal-print tailcoat emblazoned with the Boy Scouts of America logo and raises his baton to conduct, the result is a stampede of sound unlike any other.

"It's not as if we're the next Britney Spears, with record executives after us to sign a deal," quips the goateed Wright. "We don't fit into any category, which make us special and unique. It's an opportunity for me to compose for a group that could perform symphonic-sounding music, as well as jazz and rock."

This 21st century hybrid, which sprouted back in 1997, can be heard Friday night at the Ford Amphitheatre presenting its "Symphony of the Absurd."

Not content with merely deconstructing, say, Puccini's "Nessun dorma" from "Turandot" -- Dan O'Callaghan offers a stellar turn as the tenor, with a rap monologue squeezed between a couple of high Cs -- Wright has enlisted director Allen Walls and choreographer Karen Russell Budge to pump up his show's theatricality: There's an ET scenario (a "normal" band gets zapped by gamma rays and turns, well, surreal), while 10 hoofers add to the kitschy Vegas feel.

If all that makes it sound as if the 40-year-old Wright has been zapped himself, that belies his credentials. This musical prankster was born in Georgia and grew up in Laguna Beach playing trombone, tuba, guitar and stand-up bass. Eventually, he migrated up the 405, earning a bachelor's from Cal State Northridge and a master's in composition from Cal State L.A.

Supporting himself as a professional ax man, Wright has played bass with Middle Eastern entertainers and worked as an orchestrator and film composer. Drawn to many musical styles, including Frank Zappa's, he discovered his inner Elvis Schoenberg while walking through Tower Records, where he heard the far-out "bachelor pad" noodlings of the late Mexican bandleader and pianist Juan Garcia Esquivel.

"It was the weirdest version of 'Harlem Nocturne,' " he recalls, 'and I thought, 'This is cool.' As a composer, I always liked writing huge pieces. For my college recital, I wrote a symphony for wind ensemble -- 65 pieces. They performed it when most people were complaining about getting quintets together."

From those roots grew Elvis Schoenberg and the Orchestre Surreal. Starting as 17 musicians, they made their debut in '97 at the Hollywood club Largo.

Offering a bill sprinkled with anarchic arrangements of tunes by the Bee Gees, Jimi Hendrix and other pop legends, Wright was also composing his own songs.

"Fossil Fuel" (on the Ford program) was written in 1990, in fact. A quasi-political rant about gas guzzling, it features bleating horns, celestial keyboard arpeggios and lush strings reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. There's also a killer guitar solo in a work that, at times, recalls the Eastern European sensibility of a Bartok.

Should this musical ride put listeners in mind of the wacky '40s bandleader Spike Jones, that's fine with Wright, whose second gig with the group landed them on a list of top unsigned acts in Music Connection magazine.

"I like music that has humor," the maestro says. "We do a 12-tone version of 'Blue Suede Shoes.' How often does a rock guitarist get to play 12-tone music? It's fun, unexpected. It's unpredictable."

The Orchestre Surreal's venues have included the Knitting Factory, the Cinegrill and the Whisky a Go-Go. Last year, the ensemble performed in Pasadena's Doo Dah Parade, and it has since been averaging a job a month.

Adding spice to the musical mix is vocalist Angela Carole Brown, a.k.a. the Fabulous Miss Thing. This statuesque diva has sung with Ricky Martin, among others, and belts out such numbers as "Born to Be Wild" when O'Callaghan is resting his pipes.

Collectively, the group's musical pedigree is also impressive. Its members have played with Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Stevie Wonder and the "Tonight Show" band.

There is one drawback to their participation in the Orchestre Surreal: When musicians perform with Wright, they may get fed hot spaghetti dinners but they get no cash, cold or otherwise.

"At first, I had to beg people to play with me," Wright says. "But after people did, they thought it was fun. Now they ask me if they can play."

The rehearsal vibe is get-down, with an assortment of hipsters, classical-geek types and jokesters jiving as they sight-read Wright's arrangement of "We Are the Champions." The Queen tune is here a collage of polytonality.

Wright, ladling out the last of the sauce, says, "That's one of the things I try to encourage. We all have multiple sides to our personality. Music tends to isolate -- if you're jazz, you don't get to express rock or classical. We're all complicated creatures. I don't think anybody is just one thing."


Elvis Schoenberg and the Orchestre Surreal

Where: John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood

When: Friday, 8 p.m.

Price: $22; students and children 12 and younger, $12

Info: (323) 461-3673

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