For 30 musicians in the newly-formed Vassar student ensemble, Orkestar – including Paul Buffa, a double bass player and senior – these past few weeks have been something of a dream. On January 31, 2009 Orkestar backed up the indie rock band, Beirut, at a sold-out concert in the Vassar Chapel. Two days later, on January 2, Buffa and four other Orkestar members taped a performance with Beirut for CBS television’s Late Night with David Letterman. The show aired on Friday, February 6. Orkestar also went on to join Beirut for two sold-out performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on February 6 and 7.
“Accompanying Beirut with a 30 person orchestra is pretty awesome,” said Buffa, a long-time fan. “But playing with them on David Letterman – that’s almost unbelievable.”
The Letterman performance, Beirut’s first on American television, featured Buffa on double bass; Marisa Bettina ‘09 and Emily Pantel ‘11 on violin; Mary Beth Alexander ‘09 on viola; and David Wojciechowski ‘09 on cello.
The Vassar musicians were recruited to play the bittersweet orchestral arrangements that have become a Beirut trademark. The band’s first album, Gulag Orkestar (2006), mimicked Balkan folk tropes, while March of the Zapotec, one of two EPs the band plans to release this month, was recorded with a 19-piece horn section from outside Oaxaca, Mexico.
Zach Condon, the songwriter behind Beirut, says he prefers having students back him up. “I would rather play with them than with seasoned professionals,” he told The Miscellany News, Vassar’s student newspaper. “I know they want to do it, they’re really excited about it, and it’s just going to sound so much better because of it.”
For Buffa, the experience has been invaluable. “I plan to play music after I graduate, so any opportunity to be a part of the business is helpful,” he said. “It’s pretty inspirational, too. I saw this group only a few years ago play at tiny bar in Brooklyn, and now they’re on national television.”
The January 31Vassar Chapel concert was the first stop on Beirut’s new world tour, in support of their highly anticipated double EP, March of the Zapotec/Holland. Following the BAM shows in New York, the band will play in New Mexico, then go overseas to Hamburg, Amsterdam, Brussels, London, Paris, and the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Minehead, U.K.
For more information about Beirut at Vassar, follow Miscellany News coverage, including an exclusive interview with Condon, online at http://tinyurl.com/miscellanynews.
Beirut is the recording alias of 23-year-old multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Zach Condon. After dropping out of high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Condon made several trips to Europe, where he discovered Balkan folk music. This exposure inspired him to record Gulag Orkestar (2006), an album that embellished melancholic pop with world music rhythms and instruments. The album, released by Ba Da Bing!, the record label run by Vassar alumnus Ben Goldberg, class of 1995, received great critical acclaim, and was voted the best album of 2006 by influential English record store Rough Trade. Beirut’s Francophone second album, The Flying Club Cup (2007), was released by legendary independent music label 4AD, and sold nearly 80,000 copies in the United States alone.
ABOUT VASSAR’S ORKESTAR
Beirut asked ViCE, Vassar’s student-run entertainment and programming group, to find students to play with the band during their January 31 concert. The 30 Vassar students in Orkestar are: Noah Fowler, Kim Benton, Joseph Schiavo, Ethan Stanley, and Will Healy on trumpets; Ben Rutkowski and Chris Martel on trombones; Marissa Gauthier on tuba; Jon Kaimon, Jon Kanen on alto sax; violin I, Marisa Bettina, Sebastian Weinberg, Jessica Kaplan, George Gao, and Ali Kullman; violin II, Emily Pantel, Mary Beth Alexander, Sophie Blum, Gillian Taormina, Becca Arian, and Christine Yu; Emily Bookwalter, Eliza Thompson, and Serena Wong on viola; David Wojciechowski, Ian Heller, Naomi Dubin, and James Ingoldsby on cello; and Joe Senecal, Paul Buffa, and John Murchison on bass.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.