Behind The Curtain: Houston Symphony Produces Award Winning Style

Which do you think gets more attention? The Grammy Award or the Star Wars figurine?
Which do you think gets more attention? The Grammy Award or the Star Wars figurine? Photo by Don Sayles
Houston's Theater District anchors a flourishing performing arts landscape that enriches and amplifies the culture of our city. The downtown marvel joins only a handful of cities in the country with resident companies in all of the major performing arts disciplines including opera, drama, musical theater, symphony and ballet. To help introduce the offerings of our major arts players, the collective hosts one free day of performances and events to show the treasures they have to offer. Known as Theater District Open House, the annual event takes place the last Sunday of August. In a lead up to Open House, the Houston Press is taking a deeper look at the people and programs that make our arts scene vibrant.

The phrase "face the music" usually has an ominous meaning. For Houston Symphony's Brad Sayles, it's part of his daily work. Having a little hardware by his side in the shape of a Grammy Award makes that chore just a little bit sweeter.

The recording engineer spends a good portion of his working days face down with a recording deck and set of headphones. He's the person who you probably never see, but you probably benefit from his tireless hours of work.

"My responsibility is to capture the essence of every live performance the Houston Symphony does, whether it's in Jones Hall or where they travel. When I say capture the essence, it’s to recreate the nuances and the balance, the mixes the conductor creates with the musicians and replicate that as true as that is on stage," he said. "Through score reading and discussions with the artists each week, I design a microphone layout that suits the concert repertoire that I’m recording, and I make a setting to capture that as best I can."

The world class Houston Symphony performs classical concertos, POPS programming and the occasional movie score. But how do all those musicians know exactly what the finished product sounded like? And how does the Symphony construct a recording for audiences who didn't hear the live version? That's where Sayles, who runs cross interference between being a recording engineer and producer, comes into play.

"I record multiple performances, and between them, I edit them together for a pristine version for the radio. That’s where the producer hat fits in," he said.

His recordings air weekly on NPR in Houston as well as on America Public Media.

"Outside of that, I maintain the archives. There are a lot of recordings we do in a season. We capture about 28 concerts, each with three nights of performances. Then, on top of that, I make them available for the musicians to listen to and maintain the archives so that they’ll be preserved."

For someone as integral to the process of streamlining the Houston Symphony, his path to the world of classical music took a circuitous route. He originally wanted to study music, but more practical - and employable - prospects seemed more appealing.

"I worked at Johnson Space Center for three years. I was doing audio engineering and working on audio systems," said the Kingwood native. "I wanted to get my master's in music composition. I was doing that in Michigan State, but I changed it and got my degree in telecommunications. I left NASA, went to UH, and was looking for another job, and the public radio station there used the same radio I was trained on at NASA."
click to enlarge And the winner is....Hans Graf and Brad Sayles for Wozzeck! - PHOTO BY THEO WARGO FOR GETTY IMAGES, COURTESY OF HOUSTON SYMPHONY.
And the winner is....Hans Graf and Brad Sayles for Wozzeck!
Photo by Theo Wargo for Getty Images, courtesy of Houston Symphony.

From there, all the pieces fell into place and the recording industry called his name.

"At Michigan State, I worked under a guy who was recording orchestras and bands. When I moved to the public radio station in Houston, they were looking for a senior recording engineer to work with the symphony to provide concerts for radio. I got the job and became the senior recording engineer," he said. "At that time, I jumped over to full time at the Symphony as I was getting my master's in Music Composition."

Turns out that was a smart move for Sayles. The calling to music never relinquished, and his talents caught the attention of the Grammy committee. In his day-to-day recordings of the Symphony, one piece of music caught his ear, and the rest made history.

"When I was listening to the rehearsal, I though we never had done anything like this, and they were killing it. The soloists were top notch, and the musicians were stepping it up," Sayles said.

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"In 2013, we were giving our farewell concert to Hans Graf, and his dream project was to present Wozzeck. He got his wish, and they performed it over two nights. When I was listening to the rehearsal, I thought we never had done anything like this, and they were killing it. The soloists were top notch, and the musicians were stepping it up," Sayles said about initiating the recording for commercial release. "Hans was skeptical and wanted to just have the memory, but we put together a radio edit for the broadcast. For the next three years, we chipped at it. Hans would come in town three times a year, and we edited the heck out of it."

The Houston Symphony's live recording of Alban Berg's Wozzeck under the direction of Graf won the Grammy Award at the 60th annual ceremony in 2018 in the Best Opera Recording category, marking the first nomination and win in the orchestra's 100+ year history.

While winning a Grammy and working for the Houston Symphony seems like a dream, Sayles says it's all in a day's work for him, which is why events like Theater District Open House make the prestigious orchestra more accessible.

"So many people I talk to, they say had it not been for Open House, they wouldn’t know what is going on in the Theater District. When there’s a day when an entire section of downtown opens up to see what they’re all about, it becomes interesting. It’s not just a billboard. It’s a stage. It makes it more real. You think about traveling to other places, and it's a fantasy until you’ve seen it and been there. That’s what Theater District Open House does. It’s real, it's accessible, and it is worth checking out," he said.

Beyond that, the symphony's year of programming isn't just for classical music nerds. The type of music spans all interest levels.

"Any of the classical concerts are fantastic, but film music is one of my big loves. If people have never been to the symphony and are scared of classical music and not knowing how to understand it, I would highly suggest going to one of the film concerts. Next year, they’re doing The Empire Strikes Back. It starts you off with Star Wars, but there’s so much from Holst, Debussy, Stravinsky and more. If people come to a movie concert, they can become enamored by the music," he said. "Those are just fun concerts for anyone to listen to. You really can hear the progression of those compositions. I can’t recommend those movie performances enough."

Sayles' work can be heard weekly on the Houston Symphony broadcasts Sundays on News 88.7 with repeats on Houston Public Media's classical stream 8 p.m. on Wednesday nights.

Theater District Open House takes place noon - 5 p.m. with a concert starting at 4 p.m., August 25. Locations include Alley Theatre, 615 Texas; Hobby Center, 800 Bagby; Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana; Revention Music Center, 520 Texas; and Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For information, visit Free.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd