Career Retrospectives: From Hollywood to Rome

After receiving kudos and awards for his work with top music stars, Victor Vanacore gets a nod of approval from the Vatican.
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Victor Vanacore ’74 is preparing for a concert that is the culmination of a life of study and work throughout his four-plus-decade music career. On October 8 at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, he will conduct the premiere of La Sorgente (The Source), a 48-minute work he composed for two soprano and four tenor soloists, chorus, and symphonic orchestra. The piece consists of 10 neoclassical arias with texts drawn from a book of meditations penned by Pope John Paul II.

The late pontiff had asked famed tenor Placido Domingo Senior, to sing his words, and Placido Domingo Jr. sent Vanacore the pope’s book, Trittico Romano: Meditation (The Roman Tryptych). After much back and forth, Vanacore received permission from the Vatican to create a new work using the pope’s words.

“I never thought I was capable of doing something like this,” Vanacore says. “But I guess I am after going to Italy and becoming interested in my culture, studying opera and orchestration, going to Berklee, and working as an orchestra conductor. I wrote the first aria in 2005, demoed it, and sent it to Placido who said he thought it was really beautiful.” Encouraged, Vanacore created nine more expansive settings for the pope’s reflections on the natural world, Michelangelos’s masterful painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and characters from the Old Testament.

Off to a Convent

The winding road to this project began when Vanacore started taking piano lessons as a first grader. “My parents sent me to a convent everyday because I was a fresh kid and did crazy stuff,” he recalls with a grin. “One of the nuns there offered to give me piano lessons.” She taught him well enough that he was playing Beethoven’s piano sonatas in third grade. But a becoming a classical pianist was not in the cards.

“My hands are very small and I am missing a thumb muscle, so I learned after my first competition that I [couldn’t] be a classical pianist,” Vanacore says. “My father brought a fake book home from a music store because he heard that working pianists used them. Later, I had a jazz teacher who showed me how to read the book’s chord changes.” As a teenager, Vanacore began playing gigs. When it came time for college, his parents didn’t have the money for tuition, so he joined the U.S. Navy. Two of his naval assignments would influence his future.

“I was transferred to Italy with the Sixth Fleet,” he says. “That was great because I was able to go to Naples and study conducting and absorb Italian culture. When I got back to the States, I was in the band at the New London, CT, submarine base. There, I met a bunch of Berklee guys who were amazing players and arrangers.” Upon his discharge, Vanacore used his G.I. Bill benefits to fund his studies at Berklee.

“I went straight through including summers,” Vanacore remembers. “I took a lot of courses. I studied piano with Ray Santisi, line writing with Herb Pomeroy, and conducting with Jeronimas Kacinskas. Ray advised me not to take the teaching job I was considering and to go out into the world instead. He told me I’d grow exponentially.” Vanacore took the advice and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. There, he studied orchestration with Albert Harris, whom Vanacore describes as “an encyclopedia for orchestration.” Soon, he was conducting for a variety of acts playing charts penned by top Hollywood arrangers such as Jack Elliott, Ernie Freeman, and Sid Feller. He scrutinized their music to understand their methods.

“Got to Be There”

Vanacore’s first big gig was playing keyboards with the Jackson Five during the group’s heyday. When the conductor for the act became sick and couldn’t make a show at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Vanacore was asked to fill in. “We were doing the Jacksons’ Motown songs but they needed a conductor because there were a lot of production and dance numbers,” he says. “I conducted the orchestra from the piano. It was there that my preparation met with opportunity.” Vanacore subsequently became the Jackson’s conductor.

When the Jacksons began working less, Vanacore took a job as the conductor for the Fifth Dimension. He later spent two years conducting for Johnny Mathis before being hired by Barry Manilow when the singer/pianist was at the height of his fame. After six years, Vanacore, noting the growing use of technology in music, decided to take a hiatus to study it. “I left Barry’s gig in 1986 to learn about MIDI sequencing and notation programs,” Vanacore says. “It took me a few years to get up to speed.”

In Good Company

In 1990, Vanacore became the conductor, arranger, and music director for Ray Charles, he worked with the legendary singer until his passing in 2004. During those years, Charles recorded Vanacore’s orchestral arrangements on his only platinum-selling record, Genius Loves Company, which included Vanacore’s Grammy-winning chart for “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” a duet arrangement sung by Ray Charles and Johnny Mathis.

When Charles was booked to play at the Hollywood Bowl, Vanacore was asked to direct the orchestra in the National Anthem. This led to subsequent invitations to conduct the orchestra in warm-up sets for Charles. Vanacore wrote charts for these opening spots and cultivated a new venture as a guest symphonic pops conductor. Given his deep background in popular, jazz, r&b, classical music, and more, plus his ability to write parts that musicians enjoyed playing and audiences loved hearing, demand for Vanacore as a guest conductor increased. He has since led orchestras in dozens of American cities and in Canada, Australia, and in the music hubs of Europe.

He created enough repertoire to launch Colonial Road Music Publishing, a music rental library that enables other conductors to present his music. The company website (colonialroadmusicpublishing.com) contains more than 100 distinctive arrangements (with MIDI demos) in a range of idioms including Broadway, TV and film themes, pop, Latin, patriotic, jazz, holiday, inspirational, swing selections, and more. “I just rented about 10 charts to the St. Louis Philharmonic,”Vanacore says. “That’s almost their whole program. Some nights I’ll be somewhere playing a Christmas show and eight other orchestras are playing my arrangements in other cities.”

The vast experience Vanacore has accrued writing and conducting brought him to the point where he could undertake a project of the magnitude of La Sorgente. And while the words were penned by a Catholic pope, Vanacore believes that the work will appeal to both secular and religious audiences. “It borders on sacred music but is deeply rooted in Italian opera,“ he says. “It could be played anywhere. With words about nature, the Sistine Chapel, and Old Testament figures like Abraham, it could even be performed in a synagogue.”

At 69, Vanacore sees no sense in slowing down. “After preparing for challenges throughout my career, it seems to me that, as musicians, we don‘t prepare to retire. I’ve had this opportunity to write this piece. Where would I be if I hadn’t pushed myself?”