Minna Choi, music director of Magik*Magik Orchestra and choir director for City Church San Francisco, fuses together rock music with classical compositions while humbly creating a unique and respected subculture in the bay area.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music grad has shared the stage with the Dodos and Death Cab for Cutie. She teamed up with John Vanderslice in creating a full-length orchestral record titled White Wilderness. She’s been involved in multiple children’s charities at the Stern Grove Festival, and conducted the score for the movie Looper.
Choi and the Magik*Magik Orchestra will take over the Fox Theater on January 31 for a concert to celebrate the orchestra’s five-year anniversary with some of the Bay Area’s best talent, including Rogue Wave, Nicki Bluhm and Two Gallants. We caught up with Choi to talk about the past five years, her vision for the next five years and an upcoming record.
It’s been five years since Magik*Magik Orchestra was created. At the time did you see this as a long-standing project?
No, I guess you always try to dream big but you don’t expect it happen. Five years ago we were planning our first show in the summer and had very little experience and know how, and we just put the show together hoping for the best. Since then, it’s grown by word of mouth and playing more shows, and it’s grown organically. It’s felt like a nice steady growth and we haven’t been overwhelmed, but at the same time we’re up on stage playing with Death Cab for Cutie. You just have to take a step back and enjoy the moment.
What have been some of your proudest moments?
Making the record in 2010 with John Vanderslice. It was an artistic challenge and I’m proud of how it came out. He gave me a lot of freedom, which is really freeing but sometimes it can be more of a curse than a blessing. When I first started working on his record I was paralyzed because I didn’t know what kind of mood it called for. It pushed me artistically to discover my inner voice, and when all was said and done I was really proud of it.
Another one that pushed me was the film score for Looper. It’s a pretty big film and I’d never done anything like that before. We were stepping up to the plate for the first time and we just got this nervous feeling that we had to knock it out of the park. In the end, I felt like we hit that home run. I got to work with Nathan Johnson, who was the composer, and Ryan Lott, who was the orchestrator. I was the conductor and the three of us worked closely to make sure all the right moods and emotions were represented. There were times when a scene was really grotesque so we pushed the players to play with more edge. The movie is insane and deals with strange and heavy topics—a grave movie. We didn’t want the playing to be tame.
In Celebration of these five years, you’re holding a concert called “When We Were Young” at the Fox Theater including some amazing local talents like Rogue Wave, Two Gallants and Nicki Bluhm. How long did you prepare for this event and what were some of the challenges?
We go into rehearsal next week, all week, every day. It’s pretty intense, almost like a rock music factory. Bands come in, they leave and then the next one comes in, they leave and so on. Luckily we’ve played with a lot of these people before so I know how they rehearse. It will be simpler this time to get through things, but it’s a big endeavor not only musically but from a production standpoint. We have beautiful sets designed by Holly Adams, and it’s also a benefit gala.
What is the overall goal of this event?
We’re celebrating our fifth birthday and using that opportunity to launch Magik for Kids, a music education program for kids. We’ve done tester programs in the past five years and they’ve all turned out really wonderful. We wanted to think about ways to do more things and have more impact in the city. We thought, we already have these great kids programs, why don’t we try to raise enough money to repurpose these programs? If we raise about $50,000 grand we can do them really well over the next year. That was one of the big reasons we decided to do this type of show this year.
Music seemed to be a steady part of the elementary school curriculum, and now it seems like that form of education is slowly becoming obsolete.
I grew up in the Bay Area and I was lucky enough to have music in my elementary school and I know the difference it can make. I don’t know what it was about the 80s, but all my teachers played guitar or some other instrument. Music was really involved in the public school system.
This event is also spearheaded with Noise Pop, how cool is it to be a part of this again?
We’ve played a couple of times for Noise Pop, in 2010 with the dodo’s at the Palace of Fine Arts, and then another in 2012 with John Vanderslice at the Bottom of the Hill. I’ve been able to keep in touch with them and always felt super supported by the whole Noise Pop ties and family of management of concert festivals. I have to say that Another Planet has been essential to the production of this show. It’s co-presented by them. Brian, from Another Planet, has gone above and beyond to help us put on the show of our dreams.
Magik*Magik is currently anticipating the release of an album in 2014. How does this compare to other projects?
We started it last year and it’s going to be on Chris Walla’s label called Trans-Records. The record is still in progress but we started the basic tracking in 2013 and are using orchestral tracks and chopping them up and making them fun. It’s still taking shape. We’ve always had the luxury of being the frosting on the cake, and now we are the cake. We have to figure out how to make the cake!
Do you have a stable cast of musicians?
There’s maybe 20 really active members that have been there since day one. A lot of people move away from San Francisco, it’s a very transient city. It’s sad that we’re always losing people, but then new people move here to fill the void. It gives us a lot of freedom, and I love getting that email from our players about someone new saying, ‘You have to check this guy out, he’s gonna blow your socks off.’
Where do you ideally see Magik*Magik another five years from now?
In my dreams, it would be amazing for Magik to have a really active and impactful children’s program, which is what we’re starting now. It would be great to have mini sessions where every September we could send out a press release and premier three new works of these artists at these venues and museums like the Academy of Sciences and more established institutions, and do more programming together. It would be fun and create community, and help get a little bit more stabilized. We’re like a little orchestra store, we’re just waiting for someone to come in and buy something. Sometimes we’re doing ten projects, and sometimes only doing one. It’s like being an independent musician, there’s that fest or famine mentality. It would be great to have sometime more stable.
Confirmed artists for the When We Were Young anniversary concert:
Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers
How to Dress Well
The Lonely Forest
Maestro Michael Morgan
The Pacific Boychoir
Magik*Magik Orchestra celebrates its 5th anniversary at Fox Theater on January 31.