By Lisa Purchase Kelly


Leo Najar has been on the music scene in the tri-cities area and around Michigan for the past thirty years, as an accomlished arranger, teacher, and artistic director for many regional organizations, including the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra and Midland Symphony Orchestra. In 2003 he founded the Bijou Orchestra in Bay City. The thirteen-piece Bijou is modeled on the orchestras found in American vaudeville and silent movie theaters in the first part of the 20th century, utilizing exceptional musicians to present a wide variety of styles, from classical and jazz to Baroque and Klezmer.

Maestro Leo Najar has written over 200 works for the Bijou and has worked with an assortment of collaborators from all realms of the musical world. His collaboration with Randall Williams and Einstein's Dreams may be the most ambitious yet. "I went to Maine to visit Randall and talk about the project. We had lunch with Alan Lightman, and when we were done eating Randall sat down at the piano and sang a few of the pieces he'd been working on. Hearing Randall's acoustic style applied to his words, Alan lit up with connection with his folk music roots." With the author's blessing they began their work.

Najar said, "Randall approaches from the eccentric side of Einstein, not the esoteric. This is not a re-telling of Alan's stories, but an adaptation of the ideas in those stories. Virtually every word that is sung or spoken is Alan's, his visions and images lifted from the pages of the book, but ordered and adapted by Randall to focus on certain elements or themes. The songs now tell a new story." 

Starting with the book's thirty chapters, they have created a song cycle of twenty-one pieces (including a Prologue and Epilogue). Like a concept album, a song cycle is a set of songs put together in a particular order to tell a story, and the impact of the songs is enhanced when experienced together rather than individually.

Since these are songs and stories about time in all its capricious permutations, the music reflects time's mutability. "Music itself is not about things; it's about music. But tempo and rhythm are what breaks up time, measures it, so it makes sense to use a variety of forms to tell these stories." The songs will be presented in a wide-range of styles: funk, Baroque, blues, contemporary acoustic folk, and rock-a-billy (Elvis will, in fact, be singing backup).

The Einstein's Dreams world of May 15, 1905 has no time, and instead is only a collection of images. Najar explained, "This is the only instrumental piece in the cycle. For this piece I am borrowing conceptually from Arnold Schoenberg and a group of composers at the beginning of the 20th century who pioneered a new way of ordering scale, a form of serialism that uses all 12 notes. I am using orchestral color in this style, starting with a spread of sound that covers the whole range and then instruments drop out and reappear without rhythm or time."

In another scenario (May 11, 1905) time brings a movement toward order instead of chaos. Things don't get dirtier; they get cleaner. Things aren't lost; they are found. "I decided to end that song with something slightly silly: missing socks reappear." Then Najar got ahold of it and added orchestration, and the music's final phrase is shave-and-a-haircut. Each element reinforces the silly aspect of that particular scenario.

The result is a layering of elements, each building on the work already in place. Najar said, "The music needs to reinforce and enhance Alan's and Randall's ideas without taking them over."

Williams added, "The novel was complete on its own. Then I took certain ideas or images from the book and highlighted aspects of each with lyrics and music, and the songs could have been complete in themselves. Then Leo took that and further pulled musical elements out of the songs to still further highlight certain aspects of the stories and the humanity they express. The result is an incredibly dense orchestration."

Najar and Williams hunkered down for four days at a recording studio in Bloomington (literally camping out in the studio) this past December to lay down the tracks for a CD of the partial song cycle featuring keyboard, cello, fiddle, percussion, and Williams' voice and guitar. And Williams has performed some of the pieces on his own as acoustic folk music. Later, some of the music will be re-written for full orchestra. But for this weekend in Bay City (with only two full-scale rehearsals together!) the 13-piece Bijou Orchestra will premier the complete and original Einstein's Dreams song cycle. With two concerts and two auxiliary events, this weekend's Einstein's Dreams is not to be missed.

The Bijou Orchestra
Leo Najar, Artistic Director — Conductor/Composer
Randall Williams — Composer/Lyricist/Singer/Guitarist
with Special Guest Author Alan Lightman

Saturday February 26th 8:00pm
Sunday February 27th 2:00pm
The State Theater, 913 Washington Avenue, Bay City Michigan

www.thebijou.org or call (989) 892-2660
Reserved Seats $10 - $30

Of Additional Note:

1. As part of the Bijou Orchestra's weekend celebration of its world premier performance of the Einstein's Dreams concert, Bay County Library System is presenting "Booked for Lunch" on Friday, Feb. 25 at noon at the State Theatre. (normally at the Library, but they anticipate a larger audience.) Physicist, essayist, novelist and Adjunct Professor of Humanities at MIT Dr. Alan Lightman will talk about his book Einstein's Dreams, and lyricist Randall Williams will play one or two of the songs he has elicited from the book. The three collaborators–composer Leo Najar, lyricist Randall Williams, and author Alan Lightman–will take questions from the audience. Free to the public. For further information: call 894-2837 ext. 2221 or visit baycountylibrary.org.

2. Friday February 25th at 7:00pm Delta Planetarium will present Einstein's Dreams author Dr. Alan Lightman in a talk on the minds of artists and scientists at 7pm. Following the lecture, the audience will be invited to come to the State Theatre to watch Leo Najar and the Bijou Orchestra rehearse with lyricist Randall Williams. Free to the public. For further information contact Sue Montesi susanmontesi[at]delta.edu

"His music floats and fills the room, and when the hour passes that was countless hours, he remembers only the music."25 June 1905, Einstein's Dreams

© Lisa Purchase Kelly, 2011