Effectively melding popular music with classical instrumentation is like baking a soufflé: It’s a thin line between an airy delight and a flat mess. Large-scale arrangement is ultimately an act of faith — it’s impossible to tell how it will come out until all the ingredients come together.
Trey Pollard is responsible for the arranging alchemy for four of Richmond’s top performers appearing with the Richmond Symphony on Sept. 23 as part of the Broadberry Presents: RVA Live at the Dominion Arts Centre. He’s creating unique sonic settings for short sets from Matthew E. White, Natalie Prass, Tim Barry and Clair Morgan. Arrangements for Bio Ritmo, the fifth band, are by members Toby Whittaker and Marlysse Rose Simmons.
It’s a familiar role for Pollard, whose deft string stylings — complemented by White’s horn sections — are vital to the Richmond sound exemplified in a series of Spacebomb Records releases. Most recently, he arranged and conducted the joyously larger-than-life music for indie darling Foxygen’s current album, “Hang.” For the past weeks, he’s been on a U.S. and European tour with that band as guitarist, keyboardist and music director.
“It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done on record,” Pollard says. “They had a lot of clear ideas about how it should feel and sound. And they showed up to all the sessions.”
Regarding the upcoming local symphony performance, Pollard thinks that fitting someone else’s music into a larger palette is about finesse, not expansion. “It’s like digging up a dinosaur,” he says. “They’ve used shovels to unearth the large bones and I go to work with a brush and toothpick.” He attributes this approach to his Virginia Commonwealth University mentor Doug Richards. “Such an amazing arranger. [He’s] always in my ear and in my head.”
Pollard explains that the process starts with conversation — and is followed by playing the tune again and again on the piano and letting the ideas that are already in the music emerge.
“Orchestration is embellishment,” he says. “It lifts up the functional parts and amplifies the emotional things. But when you have the ideas, the rest is just work, like doing a crossword puzzle. You put pencil to paper and flesh it out.”
There are different approaches for each artist on this bill. Already there’s a high level of trust with Matthew E. White, with whom he’s worked closely since White’s breakout debut “Big Inner.” There are songs from his two albums, but they’ll be transformed for the event. “He didn’t want the songs to be like the record,” Pollard says. “The new versions are really going to lean on the orchestra for the momentum.”
A similar trust exists with singer Natalie Prass, with whom Pollard has recorded and toured. Her three-song set includes “Why Don’t You Believe in Me” and a full orchestra version of the ravishing closer from her debut album, “It Is You.”
“It’s such a pretty song,” Pollard says. “And she sings the shit out of it.” There will also be an as-yet unheard song featured on her next album, “Far From You.”
Pollard knew former Avail frontman Tim Barry’s recordings, but they had never worked together. “He’s an amazing, hardcore singer songwriter,” Pollard says. “He has people coming all the way from Germany for the performance. He really cares about how things come across, how the lyrics work, the order of the songs. We spent a lot of time working it out.” Rather than providing the main musical structure, as with White and Prass, Pollard’s arrangements are more like commentary, supporting and emphasizing Barry’s gritty voice and guitar.
There is less integration with local indie rock outfit, Clair Morgan. “They’re a rock band,” Pollard says. “They’re going to play the songs the way they always play them. I’m just going to circle around and find places where the orchestra can add some interest.”
The proof will be in the performances when the artists finally join the symphony onstage in late September. “[The artists] are not going to be able to hear it until the full orchestra plays it,” he says. “Once it’s done, you can only change little things. I hope they will show up and think that it sounds better, something they never thought of.”
The Broadberry Presents: RVA Live: Featuring Matthew E. White, Natalie Prass, Bio Ritmo, Tim Barry and Clair Morgan with the Richmond Symphony at the Dominion Arts Center, Sept. 23 at 8 p.m. thebroadberry.com and richmondsymphony.com.