Interview: Magik*Magik Orchestra finally gets top billing

Magik*Magik Orchestra, Magik*Magik, Minna Choi

Minna Choi (left) and Magik*Magik Orchestra, Courtesy: 7X7.

For five years, Magik*Magik Orchestra has played the role of sidekick to artists from San Francisco’s The Dodos to singer-songwriter John Vanderslice to Sting.

When We Were Young: Magik*Magik Orchestra with The Dodos, Geographer, Rogue Wave and more
8 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 31
Fox Theater, Oakland
Tickets: $30-$150.

On Jan. 31, the Bay Area’s leading independent, made-to-order symphony orchestra finally takes the lead in “When We Were Young,” a five-year anniversary show and benefit for children’s music education at the Fox Theater in Oakland.

“This is the first time where it’s ‘Magik*Magik featuring X, Y, Z,’ and not the other way around,” says Minna Choi, Magik*Magik’s founder, artistic director and conductor. The orchestra will be joined in concert by the Dodos, Vanderslice, Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers, Geographer, Rogue Wave, Two Gallants and more.

“We feel like the community of bands and the relationships we’ve forged over the past five years [are] on board with the vision that we’re casting. It feels like there are a lot of people rooting you on,” Choi says.

The concert also presents a welcome opportunity to play again with great musicians, Choi says. “A lot of work goes into these collaborative efforts, and a lot of times, we play it once and then they’re never really played again. I’ve always thought that was kind of a shame.”

Choi created Magik*Magik in 2008 thinking it would simply be classical musicians backing rockers in the studio. But it became a live group after she was asked to supply orchestral support for a concert of music by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood the night before Radiohead played the first Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival.

Since then, the orchestra — a rotating cast of musicians — has worked with Death Cab For Cutie and Nick Cave; recorded the score for the Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt film “Looper”; written music for a video game; and supported artists on national tours.

At Friday’s show, guests will play their favorite childhood songs. It’s an appropriate theme for the fundraiser for Magik for Kids, a hands-on program in which orchestra members introduce local children to musical instruments, composition and conducting.

“It’s our fifth birthday, and a lot of the kids we work with are 5, 6 years old,” Choi says. “One of our goals … is to have that program be really active. In order to do that, we have to raise some money.”

Q: Many of the artists on the bill you’ve worked with before. How did you approach them to take part in the evening?

Minna Choi: It was actually a really easy ask. All the bands that we’ve worked with before, which are the vast majority, I’ve been able to have a really great creative relationship with as the years went by. For example, with The Dodos, the first time we worked with them was in 2010, but … I’ve worked on both of their records that have come out since then. And we worked on another show together, and we did a video shoot last summer. They’re musical friends at this point even though they are our clients.

Q: Has it become easier acting as an intermediary between classically trained musicians and rock musicians? They’re two different groups of people.

Minna Choi: Absolutely. My job in any of our projects is to be the mediator; the person bringing these two different types of musicians together. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts things I have to learn how to do. There are things you can get better each time you do… such as making a schedule that’s realistic. That was something I was really bad at in the beginning, and that stresses out both sides. I wasn’t good at guessing how long it would take to record. If I under-guessed the timing, then you’re stuck because you’re rushing through, trying to finish everything. Things aren’t as perfect as you want them to be, or the players don’t get any breaks.  But if you overshoot it and contract for way longer than you actually need them, the band’s just wasting money. It sounds kind of boring… but if you don’t get it right, it kind of ruins the day.

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