Friday, October 12, 2018

Roland Kato on the Road with John Denver - the 1975 Spring Concert Tour

On this anniversary of singer and superstar John Denver's death in 1997, Los Angeles Revisited presents a guest post by fellow Angeleno Roland Kato, who was a member of JD's orchestra during a nationwide tour in 1975.

Roland is pictured in the Kent Twitchell mural, "Harbor Freeway Overture" in downtown L.A., as seen below in a couple of photos taken years apart by this blogger while inching up the northbound 110 Harbor Freeway. 

What is his association with this mural?  Roland explains his lifelong "occu-passion" with music, being a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, crossing paths with the likes of Tim Burton, David Hasselhoff, Pee Wee Herman, Yo-Yo Ma...and importantly, his connection to John Denver.  Even the late Jonathan Gold gave a nod to Roland while introducing a restaurant in a 2017 review.  Also more on the mural later down this post:

Three-panel mural of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra,
created between 1991 and 1994
Roland is positioned in the rear of the group,
to your right of the person standing furthest back
My First Big Gig

I was born in East L.A. at the Japanese American Hospital in the suburb of Boyle Heights on February 15, 1953 to parents Hideo and Masaye (Sato) Kato.

Because my sister, Terri, had already started taking violin lessons, that meant I also had to, didn’t it? I posthumously thank my parents for being so accommodating. I first started on violin in the 4th grade at Lockwood Ave. Elementary School, and after a very memorable field trip to the Shrine Auditorium in the 5th grade to hear an excerpted performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute, my fate as a musician was forever sealed. This was the first time I heard a beautiful, live and lush symphonic orchestra!

I attended Thomas Starr King Jr. High (here I switched from violin to viola), then John Marshall High, during which time I was also enrolled in the High School of the Arts program at the California Institute of the Arts (or CalArts, the brainchild of Walt Disney). It was at CalArts where I received my first intensive exposure to orchestral and chamber music and music theory. In 1970, I was accepted into the college-level program and was granted a full scholarship to study privately with renowned violist David Schwartz of the Yale Quartet earning my BFA and MFA degrees.

John Marshall High School Promotional Piece, 1971

As a side note, I brushed elbows with some now-notable schoolmates or “CalArtians,” like Ed Harris, Tim Burton, John Lasseter, Don Cheadle, and even David Hasselhoff; however, one in particular stands out: Paul Rubens, who often stood guard in front of the CalArts cafeteria and absolutely loved taunting onlookers. It was a first for me to be taunted by any negligée-clad person for just rolling my eyes. Who would have known he would later hone his theatre craft into the memorable character, Pee Wee Herman?

But I digress! To say CalArts was an eye-opening experience for the uninitiated is putting it mildly. It seems my life path was steered towards people in high places and especially Rocky-Mountain-High places, when I was allowed to leave school to tour with John Denver in 1975 on his 6-week Spring Tour through the U.S.

Because I was living the secluded college life of a poor student way out in what was once a very desolate Newhall, with its onion farms and long stretches of nothing but the Saugus Café, Tip’s Coffee Shop, and no car nor TV, I hadn’t a clue who John Denver was. All that changed when I was selected as one of a 5-member core of principal players, whose duty it was to oversee our own musicians du jour throughout this 28-city adventure. I met so many wonderful people on this tour and am sorry I haven’t stayed connected to them.

Our tour started in Mobile, Alabama and after a few of the concerts, I could understand why John Denver had such captive audiences. His natural abilities of musicianship, technique and earnestness won him many fans who would crowd the large college venues or stadiums to capacity.

Our tour transport was very special. We flew on a private jet (a Boeing 720 called The Starship) owned by singer Bobby Sherman and his manager. This jet was not configured like your normal jet. All the seating in the front were long sofas (with seat belts!) along the walls of the plane and in the rear were two small bedrooms with fake fireplaces! I loved all the catered meals we had onboard! Quality food for this college student was a rare commodity, so please excuse my food-centric tendencies.

My fellow tour colleague Phil Ayling recounts a story told to him by Bianca (one of our three flight attendants), regarding a near disaster while flying on this jet with Led Zeppelin, “Their drummer John Bonham (who died in his early 30’s) had tried to open the plane door while they were in flight. He was completely loaded, and it took both stewardesses to restrain him. She said that the other band members were also loaded and were just laughing, but if one of them had decided to help John open the plane door, they would have been in real trouble!”

I’m happy to report we did not experience any craziness like that on our flights! The only terrible incident I recall was a very turbulent entry into Minneapolis, where our jet made sudden rollercoaster-like dives and jolts during an epic thunderstorm. For a first-time flying experience it certainly was initiation by fright. To my knowledge, no one lost their cookies!

This grueling tour wasn’t all hard work! When we arrived in Arizona, about six days before the tour’s end, John D. arranged to rent a go-cart track for the entire touring entourage! It appears this event was well-planned and we even got blue souvenir T-shirts that read, “John Denver 1st Annual Phoenix 100”. John loved fast moving things like cars and planes and so it was expected that his competitive spirit would surface. I think I managed to get his adrenaline going when the two of us were neck in neck for the finish line at one point during the afternoon. It was a great way to let off a little stress! (By the way, I let him win, ha-ha.) This was a wonderful social event where I got a chance to meet the infamous Annie (his wife) and their baby son Zack.

For every performance, the opening act for JD was a six-member group called Liberty. I’m not certain, but I think they were based in Canada. The only member of the group with whom I had conversations was bass and dobro player Larry Gottlieb who was the son of a very famous couple, (in L.A. classical music circles) violinist, Eudice Shapiro and cellist, Victor Gottlieb. Eudice was for many years a soloist at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado & later the first woman to perform as concertmaster in a major movie studio, RKO. She occupied that position for 23 years until she became a respected professor of the string faculty of the University of So. Ca. for 50 years. Her husband (who died too early, age 42) was an extremely gifted cellist and principal of the Aspen Festival cello section. He also performed as principal cello of the RKO studio orchestra. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that Larry’s band Liberty, had a short shelf life for reasons I do not know.

Liberty's sole LP from Roland's Collection

Some of the notable studio musicians who joined the Los Angeles portion of the tour were very active members of what was familiarly known by some in Hollywood as The Wrecking Crew (coined by drummer Hal Blaine). This group of accomplished and unrecognized musicians was memorialized in a recent movie documenting their innumerable and dedicated backup for many rock-and-roll groups during the 50’s-70’s. The three Crew members I vividly remember from our tour were bassist Dick Kniss, and drummers-percussionists Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer.

Our “fearless leader,” well-known conductor, composer, and arranger Lee Holdridge couldn’t have been a nicer guy. His beautiful arrangements were fun to play, and during the course of the tour he often revised some of our parts by adding little solos (probably to keep us engaged)! I really appreciated that. The other four musicians in our core group of five were violinist Elliot Fisher, cellist Dana Reese, woodwind doubler Phil Ayling, and french hornist Jim Atkinson. Sadly, I believe Elliot died in an auto accident while on vacation in Europe and I have not heard hide nor hair of Dana; however, I have occasionally seen Phil and Jim over the past 43 (e-gad!) years since our tour! Time certainly flies when you’re having a good time!

Roland has generously shared the amazing, rare photographs below, in which he says he likely took using a 35mm German-made Kodak Retina camera.  Sometime after reading an earlier post about JD on this blog, Roland remembered the photos he snapped from that year:

A portion of a typical audience seen here, stage right
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)
Conductor Lee Holdridge waiting to do a sound check
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)
Over the past 40 years, Roland has played on various sessions that Lee scored.

Lee Holdridge before the downbeat
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Bassist Dick Kniss
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Drummer Earl Palmer; guitarist, possibly John Sommers; percussionist Hal Blaine
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

The five core orchestra people on this Spring tour also played on subsequent recording sessions at the RCA studio on Sunset & Wilcox (that building is now the L.A. School of Film) of the new material played on the tour. Those recordings which were probably made in ’75-76 may have ended up on later albums. 
Drummer Earl Palmer between tunes
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Cellist Dana Reese
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

The view from Roland's stand of JD talking to the audience
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

JD boarding a bus
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Lee Holdridge and concertmaster Elliot Fisher
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

JD leaving a hotel
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

A Ping Pong Break Between Concerts
Earl Palmer in a game of ping pong
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Dick Kniss during a match
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)
Percussionist, Hal Blaine and woodwind doubler, Phil Ayling
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

JD playing ping pong
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

JD victorious?  Or defeated?
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Go-Carting in Phoenix
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)
JD raring to go
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)
JD (white T-shirt), Hornist Jim Atkinson (sunglasses dark T-shirt), woodwind player,
Phil Ayling (far right). Unidentified are three men talking to JD
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

JD and his infant son Zack, resting after go-carting
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Annie at the go-cart track
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Baby Zack & JD (Annie is out of the photo frame)
(Photo courtesy of Roland Kato)

Roland's Career with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

(Photo courtesy of Dana Ross)
The following run-down of his career was compiled by Roland himself.  But this blogger will first mention something else - in 2017 the late Times food critic Jonathan Gold reviewed a Sawtelle district restaurant "Kato" this way:  "The restaurant is named for the Green Hornet sidekick played by Bruce Lee in the '60s TV series, although I was kind of hoping that it was named for the Los Angeles viola virtuoso Roland Kato."

Described by the Los Angeles Times as “a brilliant virtuoso, playing with the perfect combination of energy and eloquence,” internationally acclaimed viola recitalist and soloist Roland Kato has been a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra since 1976 with Sir Neville Marriner. He was appointed principal viola by lona Brown in 1987. He has also held the principal position in many orchestras including the L.A. Opera Orchestra, the Pasadena Symphony, the California Chamber Symphony and the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra.

A sought-after chamber musician, Roland participates in many chamber series in Los Angeles. He plays with the Santa Clarita Chamber Players and performed with Pacific Serenades in that ensemble’s Carnegie Hall debut. He was invited to appear as guest artist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and has also performed with the New York New Music Ensemble. He was honored to join Yo-Yo Ma in a chamber music concert benefiting cancer research.

Roland has appeared as soloist/recitalist on both viola and viola d’amore throughout the United States and abroad for LACO. In November 2002, Roland and LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer performed the West Coast premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Double Concerto in B minor for Violin and Viola. Internationally, he has appeared at the Festival Casals in Puerto Rico; Festival Internacional de Musica in Costa Rica and the Adriatic Chamber Music Festival in Bonefro, Italy. His festival appearances in the US include the Grand Canyon Chamber Music, Oregon Bach, Carmel Bach and San Luis Obispo Mozart festivals; the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego; Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Oregon, the Strings in the Mountains Festival in Colorado, Sitka, AK; and the Garth Newel Festival in Hot Springs, VA.

Roland produced the first-ever recording of Telemann’s Quatrieme Livre de Quatours, a collection of six chamber pieces performed by the period instrument ensemble American Baroque, on the Koch Classics International label. This Grammy-nominated recording has just been re-released on the Music and Arts label. His discography also includes recordings alongside Ransom Wilson and Marni Nixon, and recordings of music by Tania French and Mark Carlson. The Carlson recording, Hall of Mirrors, was awarded the Chamber Music America/WQXR Record Award for 2001. In 2003, Carlson dedicated his viola sonata, On the Coming of War to Roland and Pianist Joanne Pearce Martin. It was subsequently recorded in 2011.

Roland’s arrangements and transcriptions have been performed worldwide. His transcription of Prokofiev’s Music For Children was recently given its New York premiere, and his arrangement of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC by the New Hampshire-based Apple Hill Chamber Players. The Washington Post wrote, “[Kato] surprisingly caught the subtleties of the composer’s sparely tinted orchestral brush strokes and poetic watercolor depictions of the five fairy tales.” This arrangement received its European premiere in Ireland and has subsequently been performed worldwide.

As a musical representative of the United States, Roland has twice joined with principals and members of the Berlin Philharmonic to play symphonic music in European capitals under the sponsorship of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Most recently, the musicians donated their services for the performances of the Verdi Requiem in Paris and Berlin to benefit orphans of the war in Bosnia.

In 2016, after being a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for 40 years Roland decided to call it quits. Two years prior he had stopped doing any and all commercial work which spanned 1,000’s of motion picture scores, TV shows, commercial spots and rock and roll sessions. Sadly, it became too painful to play because of his osteoarthritis. He doesn’t miss most of the music making, but he does miss playing chamber music. He’s not down and out completely though. He does still enjoy his music arranging and has gotten back into that a bit and can’t wait to pursue another fine restaurant that’s either around the corner or in some exotic city far away. Any interest in hearing about his travel and scrumptious foodie experiences from around the world?

The Public Mural "Harbor Freeway Overture"

Roland kindly obliged this blogger's request to identify the individuals on the mural.

He explained that the mural was funded by ANA Airlines. Their CEO, Tachi Kiuchi was also a member of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra board in 1991 when it was painted by muralist Kent Twitchell. After 27 years, Roland says Julie Gigante is the only remaining person in the mural who is still in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

As an interesting side note, Roland's cousin Waynna Kato is in another early mural painted by Mr. Twitchell depicting notable Otis art students. Roland has never seen it in the flesh, but believes the mural is in Torrance.

Torrance mural

Visit the earlier posts on JD:  John Denver in L.A. and YouTube and The Sixties and John Denver at the Grammy Museum Los Angeles.