Backed By The Boulder Phil, Josh Ritter Returns To The Orchestra Pit

Oct 8, 2015

When asked about his early experiences with the violin, Josh Ritter doesn't mince words.

"Oh I was terrible at it," he said. "It was awful."

The singer-songwriter stuck with the instrument for 13, very long, years and a very patient violin teacher. Eventually he discovered another stringed instrument – the guitar. But even now as a bona fide rock star, Ritter still has a soft spot for his days in the orchestra pit.

"The thing I really learned from the violin was dynamic - that the violin is a human voice," he said. "It's a voice and it registers all our emotions in this beautiful way and that when you're singing, those tiny modulations can mean so much."

Which is why Ritter likes to – occasionally – get back to his classical roots, like with his upcoming performance with the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra.

"Playing with an orchestra is not like playing with a band, you know," he said. "There's an enormous amount of power coming out of this large body of people. It feels like – you know – you're either riding the horse or you're tied to it, and the really exciting times come when you're tied to the horse."

Because this is his chance to go big. Really big.

"For anyone who hasn't had an orchestra back them up, I'd say it's a tremendously huge ego rush," he joked, likening it to putting on an insanely expensive suit.

"I imagine that if you put on a $10,000 suit you feel pretty good walking down the street, you know," Ritter said. "And I feel like this is the chance – this is the chance to play with an orchestra is the chance to be as fancy as you want."

Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director Michael Butterman
Credit Courtesy of Glenn Ross / Glenn Ross Photo

It's not a bad opportunity for the $10,000 suit either, said Boulder Philharmonic Music Director Michael Butterman. For the orchestra, pops concerts like this one are a chance to let their hair down.

"For an orchestra that is used to performing great music in reverential silence, these kinds of concerts are a welcome departure," Butterman said. "We love the reverential silence, of course, when you're playing masterpieces of Brahms and Beethoven, but there's just something really wonderful to feel like an audience is connected."

That's because audiences don't break out into thunderous applause upon hearing the first few notes of a familiar song at a classical concert. Stomping your feet for an encore of Tchaikovsky or Chopin? Unheard of.

"At first, it maybe takes you aback a little bit if you're not used to it as a classical musician, but after a while you're thinking - this is great," Butterman said.

It's also an opportunity to introduce the symphony to a new audience.

"A concert like this gives us an opportunity to connect with parts of the population that maybe haven't attended a Phil concert before," he said. "And we hope that they'll come back and check us out for some other performances as well."

The worlds aren't as divided as one might think, though. Ritter said orchestral music has long been an inspiration to his sound, including his new album, Sermon on the Rocks.

"I think the thing that really gets me are the big, grand moments," he said. "They're those moments that are big and broad. I really think of them as Aaron Copeland moments, you know… I think going into the studio and looking for moments that you kind of experienced in an orchestra show is a good way to come up with something that's, like, a little bit larger and more profound than you would have found on your own necessarily."

But don't expect Ritter to pull out a violin and play along with the orchestra.

"Uh, I think there's a law against it," he joked.