If you ask Chicago Symphony Orchestra librarian Wally Horban what was the most exciting thing that happened to him on the orchestra’s recent tour of Japan, he is quick to mention the new synthesizer he picked up, “much cheaper than I would have paid in the States.” Then he adds, “It was great, because I actually set up a portable studio in my hotel room and wrote two songs over there.” And what kind of songs does the CSO librarian write? “R & B, mostly. But pop and rock as well.”
Horban is a well-established Chicago songwriter and arranger whose clients include R & B veteran General Crook, with whom Horban is a frequent collaborator. “I write the music, make the arrangements, and play all of the instruments,” says Horban, “the General writes the lyrics, the lead melody, and produces.” The two have just formed a new record label called Stellar Records –“Where the stars are,” says Horban.
How did a CSO librarian get into R & B? “It’s almost a stigma. People will say, ‘What’s he doing writing black music?’ Then they hear what I can do and say, ‘What’s he doing working for the Chicago Symphony?’ I consider both views to be compliments. It means they think I do my job so well in the one field that I couldn’t possibly relate to the other.
“Actually, I’ve always been involved in popular music, ever since I began at seven on the accordion and played polkas in northern Wisconsin, where I grew up. I had a four-piece band that used to play weddings and parties, and had a Chordovox, an organ- accordion. So my interest in layering sounds goes all the way back. I also wrote and arranged for the group.”
Horban started studying English at DePaul University, then switched to music. Later he became a part-time librarian for the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony. “Lionel Sayers, [the CSO’s] principal librarian at that time, saw that I could do figured bass, arranging, transposition, copying–a lot of things that he didn’t like to do because he wasn’t very fast at them. I was fast at them, started to get a name for myself that I could do all of these things, so he asked me to become his assistant.”
Horban had started work on a master’s degree in composition at DePaul, but he decided that a full- time job as a member of the Chicago Symphony would carry more weight. “I became the first assistant librarian to the Chicago Symphony.”
Horban, who has been at the CSO for 21 years now, points out that using “librarian” to describe what he does can be misleading. ‘Music technician’ would be a better job title, because that’s what it is. Yes, we make sure that every player has their parts for every piece of music at every rehearsal, performance, and recording session. But if Leinsdorf says, ‘I want the cellos to double the horns here,’ someone has to do that. I’m the ‘someone.’ You don’t go back to him and ask what key that will be in. You have to figure from a horn in D to cellos in bass clef, and that can be tricky. Or when we recorded ‘Bear Down, Chicago Bears’ with Solti the year of the Super Bowl–that was a band arrangement, so I had to make an orchestral arrangement that included the strings.”
Horban’s domain is in the basement of Orchestra Hall. Thousands of scores in specially compressed shelves make up the working library; the permanent archives are housed elsewhere. Horban pulls out an original manuscript in the handwriting of Darius Milhaud, a 50-year-old piece that was written for the 50th anniversary of the orchestra. Then a Richard Strauss score that’s personally inscribed to Theodore Thomas, founder and first music director of the Chicago Symphony. And a Wagner arrangement done in Thomas’s own hand nearly a century ago–a hand so beautiful that it was used as the model for CSO gift wrap. Horban also pulls out a Frederick Stock manuscript, an oversized score of one of the former music director’s famous arrangements.”I’ve pulled these rarer things out of circulation and am setting up a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment for them.”
As a result of Horban’s expertise in commercial writing and arranging, the Sinfonia Orchestra of Chicago asked him to combine his vast symphonic knowledge with his compositional skills and commissioned him to write a “serious” symphonic piece. “I was flattered, and suggested that it might be a flute piece, since my wife is a flutist. Since the [CSO] was going to Australia at that time–February of ’88–I thought perhaps a piece on or about Australia would be interesting. I took a little sequencer with me, began the piece in Sydney, then traveled around thinking about it. I heard many of the aboriginal-type things over there–the droning and whatnot–which was a strong influence on the piece. I called it Australis–from the Latin meaning ‘southern,’ which is where Australia got its name–trying to evoke its primal feeling before it became a nation. When I got home, I did a synthesized version of the piece on my big bank of synthesizers, playing it first, writing it out later. Much of it turned out to be written-out improvisation–with the same open and barren feeling you get throughout most of Australia.”
The piece has been performed in Wilmette and Oak Park, but this week it will be performed in Orchestra Hall, with Horban’s wife Diane as soloist and with the Classical Symphony Orchestra–a training orchestra for young people who want to be professional musicians–under the direction of its founder and music director Joseph Glymph. A second performance will be given on Sunday at the Public Library Cultural Center.
The piece has now been published, and Sir Georg Solti’s assistant Charles Kaye liked it enough to recommend it; Solti later asked Horban to give him the score. So Horban’s future as a cross-genre composer may be bright indeed. “I’m even doing another commission already,” he says “The best part is, I can hear Australis, enjoy it, and be proud of it. I’m very happy with it and excited about it. That should be the test for a modern composer–can you sit and listen and actually enjoy your own music? If not, how do you expect other people to enjoy it?”
Horban’s Australis can be heard Monday evening at 8 PM in Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, in a program that also includes Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman Overture, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Lalo’s Cello Concerto, with CSO principal cellist John Sharp as soloist. Tickets are $7 to $22; call 435-6666. The program (minus Sharp) will be repeated on Sunday, May 13, at 3 PM in the Cultural Center of the Chicago Public Library. Admission is free. Call 341-1521.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.