When musician Richard Henn talks about the job he's had for each of the last 20 summers, he starts to sound like a surfer.
It's the adrenaline rush, he says, that keeps him coming back time and again to his chosen spot in Laguna Beach.
"What really turns me on is the process . . . that long, curvy, exciting pathway where I get to carry all the pieces through, from conception to completion," Henn said recently from his Malibu home. "I am addicted to the creative process--the stress and deadlines and all."
Henn is music director and conductor of the annual Pageant of the Masters, and it's actually far more than a summer job. But it's the show's two-month run every July and August when he gets to share with the public the fruits of the eight months he spends composing and arranging all the music for each year's pageant, where works of art are re-created on stage using live actors.
Its demands can leave him little time to spend on other projects or with his wife and two children. But it seems a natural career destination point for a kid who once had brief flirtation of national fame as a singer and songwriter in the '60s pop-rock band the Sunrays, whose minor hits included "I Live for the Sun" and "Andrea," singles produced by Beach Boys patriarch Murry Wilson.
This year's pageant theme, "The 20th Century: Ten Decades of Art," gives him more opportunity than usual to draw upon the music he loved and played in his youth, as it requires music to echo everything from turn-of-the-century French Impressionists through artists of the rock 'n' roll generation.
Besides playing in bands of his own, Henn, an accomplished pianist, clarinetist and drummer, has composed and arranged songs and played keyboards for the Beach Boys, Helen Reddy, Johnny Rivers, Leon Russell and Fabian. He has composed four film scores, arranged music for television and cable programs, and conducted the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra.
But each November for the last two decades, he has embarked on another creative journey, which begins when he sits down with the pageant's director and scriptwriter to discuss the year's theme.
Improvising Comes After Studying the Art
In the early stages of the composing-arranging process, Henn sits at his Steinway grand, with synthesizers at hand, and studies photos of the featured artworks.
"I ask myself, 'If I was the artist, what am I saying with this work and what does this visually sound like?' " said Henn, who got his degree in music composition from Mount St. Mary's College before studying ethnomusicology at Cal Arts in Santa Clarita.
Then he gets down to work.
"I just start improvising at the piano, reaching for orchestral colors and moods that enhance the works of art, something that brings drama and an emotional subtext. I'll sketch my ideas, thinking about the orchestra as I write, for example, imagining what a Gypsy-like violin would sound like for this Russian sculpture," he said, referring to "Kuzma Minin and Dimitri Pozharsky Monument" by Ivan Martos in this year's show.
"If the art is starting to move for me, then I know I'm on the right track. The challenge is to create music that is the servant of the art."
Another key aspect of Henn's role as music director is sequencing the production, in effect, making the music and tableaux vivants as seamless as possible.
For one as ambitious as this year's production, which uses classical, jazz and early rock 'n' roll to highlight art ranging from Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali to Norman Rockwell and David Hockney, pacing is crucial.
"We need to make sure there's some dynamic build, and when you're moving from Impressionistic art, to galloping horses and honking horns, to just plain narration, it's not really that simple," Henn said. "Rhythm and harmony are very important, and a through-line or connection with each visual is a must. But it's walking a very fine line because if the color or timbre is too similar, it can bore the audience--yet too much of a contrast is too jarring."
Henn was born in Santa Monica and grew up in a musical family with an opera-singer father, showgirl mother and piano-playing grandmother.
While a sixth-grader in Pacific Palisades, he formed his first rock band, the Renegades. By the mid-'60s, it had evolved into the Sunrays, which Henn described as "a coastal consciousness band, not a surf band."
The hits dried up after less than a year of success in 1965-66--"Still" was the last of the group's three top-100 singles--so by the mid-'70s Henn had enrolled in music school to "better equip myself to articulate my creative impulses.
"I loved the music I heard and could play, but I wanted to grow as a musician . . . be able to write, read and speak it fully," he said. "So I pursued formal studies, learning so much from people like [composer] Bill Kraft, [pianist] Dolores Stevens and my father-in-law, [conductor] Carmen Dragon."
Father-in-Law Helped Open Door to Position
Before long, Henn was writing and playing music for orchestras and pop and rock stars. It was Dragon, though, who played a small but pivotal role in Henn becoming part of the Pageant of the Masters' team.
Dragon was asked in 1979 to be the pageant's musical director. He declined but said he knew the right man for the job.
"I know this sounds like nepotism, but knowing my education, experience and interests, he suggested me," Henn said. "So I was offered and took the position, and it was just immediate simpatico between us."
At his 20th anniversary with the pageant, he speaks with genuine fondness about the event and his contributions to its success.
And yet, he said, "It is a double-edged sword. . . . Because of the commitment, I'm just not available for other opportunities that might arise. Even worse, though, is when I have to shut out my kids, [6-year-old] Renee and [11-year-old] Paul, simply because I've got to get the work done. I don't want to miss their childhoods. Sometimes it's tough to have a life at all."
On the other hand, he noted, "It's a consistent, inspiring gig. Like taxes, it's there--year after year. In this business, where else does that happen?
* The 1999 Pageant of the Masters presentation "The 20th Century: Ten Decades of Art," Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. 8:30 p.m. nightly. $10-$50, includes season pass to the Festival of Arts. Through Aug. 29. (800) 487-3378.