by Mike Mettler
photo by Mike Mettler
For Tommy Shaw’s triumphant Sing for the Day solo appearance with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra (CYO) on May 27 at Waetjen Auditorium on the Cleveland State University campus in Cleveland, Ohio, CYO conductor/music director Liza Grossman asked two noted CYO alums back to join in on Tommy’s celebration — namely, violinist extraordinaire Lavinia Pavlish and cellist David Ellis (who’d actually be tackling a bit of a different role this time around).
You may recall both of these dynamic CYO’ers as having some memorable moments during the original One With Everything concert held a decade ago on May 25, 2006 at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Lavinia joyously traded licks with Styx co-founding guitarist/vocalist James “JY” Young on Willie Dixon’s “It Don’t Make Sense (You Can’t Make Peace)” — “Give Lavinia some love!” Tommy exclaimed at the song’s conclusion — while David and his cello co-principal Eric Tannenbaum could be seen dueling quite furiously together during the intro to “Fooling Yourself.”
In between the day’s rehearsals and ultimate showtime, I sat down with Ellis and Pavlish together in a nearby Waetjen Auditorium rehearsal room (where I also took the above photo of the pair) to jog their memories of 10 years ago, and then bring them into the present day to discuss the time of their lives.
Mike Mettler: David, you first — tell me how you got involved with the CYO Styx event 10 years ago.
David Ellis: I was a junior in high school, and it was my third year with CYO. Styx got announced as the rock concert that year, and how Liza would announce it to us is she’d play a song on the speakers, and we’d have to guess who it was. I don’t know if she does it that way anymore, but that was the unveiling process.
Mettler: Were you familiar with Styx music prior to that point?
Ellis: I knew who they were. I knew they were a big deal. I knew that my parents thought it was a big deal! (all laugh)
But I didn’t know all of the songs. I had heard “Renegade” before, but I really didn’t know all the pieces. That said, when we all got our listening assignments once the concert was officially announced, I realized it was all really amazing stuff.
CYO has now done two concerts that include Tommy’s music, and what I noticed between then and now is that they’ve done the program in two totally different ways — but both incredibly effectiveways. Especially if you’ve heard the new “Blue Collar Man” — it’s awesome! It’s so different, but at the same time, it tells you how good the songs are already. We sensed it when we were first listening to it.
Mettler: Lavinia, how did you get involved with the CYO Styx project a decade ago?
Lavinia Pavlish: First of all, I grew up listening mostly to classical music, and hardly any rock music at all. In fact, I may not have heard any rock music except for at middle school dances until my first year in CYO, which is so dorky. (chuckles)
Mettler: When it comes to music, there are no wrong answers as to how you get exposed to it.
Pavlish: This is so totally the wrong answer when it comes to this music! (all laugh)
Mettler: Did you grow up in the Cleveland area?
Pavlish: I did, yes. I guess I grew up really sheltered. My mom is Hungarian, so I didn’t have much exposure to pop culture.
Mettler: David, why does “Fooling Yourself” continue to hold special meaning for you?
Ellis: One of the things that brings that original concert to mind as one of the favorite ones I’ve ever done is — besides playing with friends — “Fooling Yourself.” The massive dueling cello thing was between me and my friend Eric Tannenbaum. We actually continued on together for a long time after CYO, and were freshman roommates at Oberlin [College in Oberlin, Ohio].
Watching the DVD again, first of all — everyone is as young as anything! (all laugh) At the same time, it was seeing faces I hadn’t seen for 10 years.
Mettler: Lavinia, 10 years ago, on “It Don’t Make Sense (If You Can’t Make Peace),” you had a “special moment” with James Young, as Tommy referred to it while he and I were talking between rehearsal takes. What do you recall about that part of your performance?
Pavlish: That song is so amazing. Some of their songs are so beautiful. Oh man — that was the highlight of my 17-year-old self! The solo was a written part, but JY is such an awesome musical communicator. He made me look good. It was all him! (chuckles)
Ellis: I thought it was fantastic myself!
Mettler: I agree. JY wouldn’t mince words if he thought it wasn’t working for him, so I think you have to take some of the credit, Lavinia.
Pavlish: Oh cool. That’s so sweet. Thank you.
Mettler: And now, you’re getting that nice featured solo on “Renegade.” It sounded pretty good and different each time on the passes you all did together during rehearsal. You and Tommy play off of each other so well already. The official term is you were “cutting heads” up there — trading licks.
Pavlish: Yes, he was trading licks, I was just trying to keep up. (laughs) Well, it’s very intimidating playing with the most amazing guitarist I know! I don’t think I quite understood that until I got up and tried it with him.
Mettler: How did that whole scenario come about? Did Liza approach you about it?
Pavlish: Liza did; yeah. She texted me: “Come play at this CYO concert!” So, of course, I said, “Yes!”
Mettler: The violin duet that you and concertmaster Alex Ikezawa did together on “Come Again” [a Shaw song originally on 1990's Damn Yankees] — did you work that out beforehand?
Pavlish: We did. We ran it a couple of times in the rehearsal room. He was so humble. I was like, “Pick which part you want to do!” He emailed me back, “I’ll do the second part.” “No, you do the first part!” He’s awesome!
Mettler: If Tommy came to you and said, “I’d like you to choose any other song of mine to take a solo on,” which song would it be?
Pavlish: Wow. Well, “Come Again” is such a beautiful song, but “Renegade” was always my first choice. I didn’t really realize how badass “Renegade” was until I started listening to it again to get ready for this. Oh my God, it was so exciting!
Mettler: Lavinia, I know you now live and work in New York. David, you’re still local, right?
Ellis: I am. I live down the street! (chuckles) Liza called me for this. It was great. One of the things I do now is freelance. I do more baroque music these days, which is very different, but also a lot of fun.
Mettler: But you’re in a different role this time, to put it mildly. You’re not on cello; you’re in the chorus.
Ellis: Very much so! Last year, I participated very willingly when I was asked to do the Graham Nash CYO concert [on June 5, 2015]. Usually, they have children’s choruses for that sort of thing, but they might not have the amount of bass voices that they need. I knew they wanted to fill it out and do something of a more full-chorus nature, so when Liza called me about it, I said, “Do you need a bass voice, by any chance?” She was like, “Sure, absolutely!” And it’s nice, because I don’t get the chance to do that very often — and it’s not a bad thing to keep the chops going.
It’s so nice that this time it’s with Tommy, but any time you get to work with Liza — she’s not just a great musical director, she’s an incredible conductor. Since I’ve now taken up conducting as well, it’s really cool to watch her work.
Mettler: Calling her “dynamic” doesn’t even seem to say enough about what she does. She’s so animated at the podium.
Ellis: She’s so natural.
Pavlish: She’s so warm.
Ellis: And her orchestras will walk in fire for her. It’s amazing to watch.
Mettler: The level of respect she commands — I imagine it makes you want to do an even better job at what you’re doing, just for her.
Pavlish: Tommy Shaw seems the same way. He’s so humble.
Mettler: It’s true of everyone in the Styx organization. They’re so tight, and they’d do anything for each other. It’s an extended family, which much also help you as performers. You feel more comfortable around that vibe, I’m sure.
Pavlish: That is so important — if they’re that nice, it really does help.
Ellis: I was so struck that both 10 years ago and today, Tommy’s wife [Jeanne] came up and gave a really nice speech: “This is the one time you get to express yourselves, so really go for it!” When do you ever get a chance to see that up close? That’s a whole other level of dedication.
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