Thursday September 15, 2011


Carlton Maaia II is not a rock star. But he has led music groups as small as five and as large as 170 locally. He's also worked in music industry hot spots like New York City and Nashville. He performs in and conducts jazz groups, choral ensembles and church music.

Maaia, who turns 30 in November, recently wrapped up with a gig leading the pit orchestra for Berkshire Theatre Group's community production of "The Wizard of Oz" at The Colonial Theatre.

On Monday, he transitioned into his new role as music director at the First Church of Christ, Congregational on Park Square. He also started his new role as artistic director of Berkshire Concert Choir this week, replacing longtime director John E. Cheney.

The Oberlin Conservatory-trained organist and classically trained pianist will also play with his group, the Carlton Maaia Quintet, at next month's Pittsfield CityJazz Festival.

Here, the Pittsfield native takes five with The Eagle to talk about his new roles, working with munchkins, church jazz and why he'll never turn down a cup of coffee.

Q: So you just spent a year in Nashville as a musician-in-residence at the Scarritt-Bennett Center. What did you do, and how do you feel about being back living and working in your native Pittsfield?

A: I worked to start a church jazz service, "Vespers and All That Jazz!" and I'm still doing work for them writing and arranging music.

When the opportunity to work with these groups here opened up, I decided to take them. It's good because there are all sorts of small venues partnering and following this center of gravity around Pittsfield, be it the church, Berkshire Music School or the theaters hosting musical productions. It's never been like that before.

Q: Where did you go to school?

A: When I was growing up here, I went to Catholic schools and graduated from St. Joe (St. Joseph Central High School). I went to BCC (Berkshire Community College) and then Oberlin where I studied to become an organist.

Q: Wow, an organist. How did you get into music, more specifically the music you work with these days?

A: I've always liked jazz. My parents grew up listening to motown and soul, so that was part of my upbringing. I found classical on my own which got me into church and choral and theater music.

Unfortunately, the schools I grew up in didn't have strong music programs at the time, so I did music outside on my own.

Q: Where else have you been working with music?

A: I moved back here and was the music director for Berkshire Youth Theater Ensemble from 2000 to 2003, then the music supervisor for Cheesecake Charlies' Cabaret in Great Barrington.

In 2004, I was a répétiteur for The Shaker Mountain Opera Company. From 2005 to 2010, I was the fine arts coordinator at Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains, N.Y., and before that music director at St. Mark's Church in Pittsfield.

I also played organ at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge. I've also done a lot of youth and community theater and music groups.

I've always been a full-time musician and I've learned to do so you really have to be versatile.

Q: I'll say. So at the time of this interview, you're about to have opening night as pit orchestra conductor for "The Wizard of Oz" at The Colonial. There's a ton of kids here at all musical levels. What's it like working with this age group?

A: There's always been a lot of work here to work with students and schools. It's neat because I've been able to see some students grow up in these ensembles.

I've focused in musical direction, which means you have to be able to teach and communicate ideas.

The interesting thing about "Wizard of Oz" is that out of a 10-piece orchestra, eight members are students from middle and high school. There are also 170 people in the production, so keeping organized becomes a matter of logistical chaos. But basically you just have to be able to meet them where they are.

It's exciting to see people take a journey in that way and I love to be there when they get there.

Q: So tell me about your new job at the First Church. What are you looking forward to?

A: The church has a long history in music. I'm still getting a sense of direction of where they want to be headed. But the current pastor, James Lumsden, is a musician and a member of the Sister City Jazz Ambassadors.

He really promotes musical diversity in the church, and we're interested in carrying over what I've worked on in Nashville, creating church jazz.

Q: Very cool. How about Berkshire Concert Choir?

A: The church had director John Cheney for a long time. There are a whole bunch of changes for them, including a move to Pittsfield. But I see this as a time of renaissance for them.

They're an all-volunteer choir (close to 80 people) committed to singing the best choral master works of all eras, from Renaissance to contemporary.

This year we're also starting an apprentice program for high school and college students, which will be offered to student musicians at no cost. That's the future of things here in Pittsfield.

Q: Carlton, do you sleep? How do you manage this all?

A: Sleep? Not as much as I'd like to. It's all preparation. If I'm not prepared, it's not going to work. Also, I drink a LOT of coffee.

Q: Any other advice for people who are interested in taking this kind of direction in music?

A: Musicians have to help each other out. You can't do it all on your own. I've learned that the hard way and I'm still learning.

Get as many experiences as you can, and listen, listen, listen to everyone playing that you can. You will find things to be invigorating and experience things you never knew about.

Also, play with musicians who are more experienced than you are. I like to be the worst musician in the room because it makes me work harder. I'm learning every day and will keep doing it as long as I can.

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