story by Sue Kiyabu
photos by Brad Goda
The stage lights are up, but the seats are vacant. Robert Cazimero stands center stage at the Hawai‘i Theatre facing his brother Roland, who is sitting nearby on a folding chair. Both don headphones. A voice from the back calls out “OK,” and they lean into their microphones. And while their harmonies flow mellifluously, the song—with lyrics about birds, oysters, champagne and the niceties of romance—is decades away from their contemporary Hawaiian sound. It recalls a time of tuxedos and chiffon, of smoky bars, of clubby leather booths, of swing coats and opera gloves.
“I’m not happy with the ‘sparkling champagne,’” Robert calls out.
“Well OK, let’s get some bourbon in here,” jokes conductor Matt Catingub, sitting behind him at the grand piano.
“Once I get that, I will be happy,” Robert says. He waits for the OK and launches into the melody. Minutes later, after hearing the playback, he lifts both arms in victory and dances a little dance on the historic stage.
The mood during recording sessions for the Matt Catingub Orchestra of Hawai‘i’s first CD is loose, fluid, fun. But that lightness belies the grandness of Catingub’s master plan. If everything in the works goes as planned, this recording could signal a new era for Honolulu’s music scene. The man has big plans.
Earlier this year, Catingub, better known as the Honolulu Symphony Pops conductor, put together a thirty-nine-piece orchestra with business partner and producer Allen Sviridoff. Their inaugural project, the CD Return to Romance, was released in October. The disc includes classics by Irving Berlin, Edward Heyman and Victor Young and Rodgers and Hart and features the voices of several of Hawai‘i’s most notable singers. Keali‘i Reichel takes a turn at Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Jimmy Borges sings the classic “When I Fall in Love.” Catingub moves directly behind the mic with “Honolulu (I Fell in Love With).” The Brothers Cazimero sing “Let There Be Love.” Sviridoff admits it’s shamelessly romantic—think Harry meets Sally in Hawai‘i.
“What we wanted to do with this record is to make sure that the local artists are doing things they are not really known for,” Catingub says. “So we’re doing a jazz standard for the Brothers Caz and an Irving Berlin song for Keali‘i. That’s one of the unique aspects of this project.”
Sviridoff employed a number of techniques to motivate the vocalists. For Amy Hanaiali‘i Gilliom’s version of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” Sviridoff suggested she sing the song to her newborn child. The result was so moving, the recording staff recalled their “chicken skin” days after.
For the Brothers Cazimero, recording the 1940 tune “Let There Be Love” wasn’t technically different from recording an original tune. “The only thing I’m concerned about is hitting the notes,” says Roland. “I’m not going traveling—I just want to hit the right notes at the right times.”
Still, the full sound of the orchestra, the melody, the lyrics, can affect the singer. “Oh, I’m definitely sitting in a smoky bar with dusky drapes. I’m dancing really close to someone in a slinky dress,” Robert says.
Catingub and Sviridoff plan to release an annual CD with the orchestra and to put together a twice-yearly festival to support the CD. Not a weekend festival. An eleven-day festival. Two times a year. Their hope: to create a music scene that generates international buzz. Monterey, Montreux, Hawai‘i. Catingub plans to devote the majority of his time to the orchestra and talks of world tours, of playing both small and large venues, of working with visiting and local artists.