Emmy-Nominated Music Directors Pull Off Live Performances at the Oscars and Super Bowl

“Music direction” is the most mysterious of the seven music categories at the Emmys, and eligibility rules have changed over the years. The current definition is: “arranging and orchestrating, composition, supervising of rehearsals and recordings, and conducting both live and prerecorded material.”

Explains Adam Blackstone, who won last year as music director of the Super Bowl Halftime Show: “It’s not just about the music. My job is also referee, to make sure things go smoothly.” He is a dual nominee this year, for Fox’s Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show starring Rihanna and HBO Max’s 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

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For the Rihanna show, he started planning three months before the Feb. 12 event. “I asked her, what is the story you’re trying to convey?” he notes, helping to select the 13 songs that would become a greatest-hits medley running 13 1/2 minutes. There were 43 different versions of the set list before Super Bowl Sunday.

Blackstone worked closely with co-music director Omar Edwards (also nominated) and choreographer Parris Goebel, and although the band was pre-recorded for the precision movement of the dancers, he was also onstage playing bass during the show.

For the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the all-star cast included Dolly Parton, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Eminem, Lionel Richie, Pat Benatar and more. “It gets a little tricky to say who is tributing who, and we’re not able to book that far in advance because of touring schedules. It’s a little bit of a brain-twister, that’s for sure.”

Blackstone worked on new arrangements for virtually everything in the three-hour show, “because it’s for television, [but] these legendary artists have input on what sections of each song work best for them.” Unlike the Super Bowl show, the R&R Hall of Fame show isn’t live, giving Blackstone and company time to tweak it in post-production before airing a week later.

Two-time Emmy winner Rickey Minor is nominated for a third time as music director of ABC’s Oscar telecast. The 2023 edition was special because the orchestra was on stage for the first time in several years. “It changed everything,” he says. “Sonically, we weren’t in the pit and it gave the music more room to breathe.”

He conducted a 42-piece orchestra during the live show, and during the previous week rehearsed and pre-recorded many of the 160 individual pieces that were needed: play-ons, play-offs, music into and out of commercials, and most importantly, the arrangements of the best song nominees.

This year was more of a panic than most because performers Rihanna and Lady Gaga decided to join the show at the last minute.

“I like taking a deep dive into the history of the Academy,” Minor adds, sometimes choosing obscure movie tunes or those from other countries to play. “What do I want the audience to feel inside the theater?” he asks. “They dictate how people at home will feel. I look at the pacing of it, that it has an ebb and flow.”

This year’s Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song went to Joni Mitchell, captured in a 90-minute PBS special that featured James Taylor, Brandi Carlile, Annie Lennox, Graham Nash, Diana Krall and more. Greg Phillinganes was nominated as music director.

Ken Ehrlich, who produced the show, praised Phillinganes as having the three requisites for this job: “Great musical taste that has to be broad enough to encompass many different styles of music; the ability to listen, to the artist, the producer, but mostly the music; and the dedication to putting the time and energy into coming up with an almost impossible number of arrangements, styles and keys in an incredibly brief time span.”

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