Leader of the band

For Dallas Symphony music director Andrew Litton, a really good night at the Meyerson is a capacity crowd of 2,064. Imagine putting on your tux, going to work, and lifting your baton knowing that three-and-a-half billion pairs of eyes throughout the world are watching you--the biggest, most-watched TV event in history. That's what 41-year-old Dallas native Mark Watters has been experiencing as music director of the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Until he got the gig, Watters was a Los Angeles-based composer who had carved out a niche for himself scoring animated kids' shows, both for TV (two Emmys) and direct-to-video feature films, including Aladdin II. As music director of the Olympics, Watters has creative control of nine hours of music in the opening and closing ceremonies.

As we talked last week, Watters was sitting in his office in the stadium as 9,000 unpaid volunteer members of the cast were having their first run-through. "It's very exciting. It's certainly the biggest job I've ever had--the most exciting job. I still feel, even though I've been doing this for 10 years, I'm at the beginning of my career, because I worked so long as a ghostwriter and orchestrator."

Watters' biggest fear is not a bomb, but bombing: "We're not worried about terrorists as much as we're worried about rain!" A full dress rehearsal was taped to use as a backup if Mother Nature is uncooperative.

How did Watters go from being an obscure animation composer to music director of the mother of all musical events? He had a friend who was on the Atlanta Cultural Olympiad committee, which puts on country, classical, and other concerts during the two weeks prior to the opening ceremonies. The friend happened to be talking to Olympic ceremonies producer Don Mischer, who mentioned he needed a music consultant for some pre-Olympics meetings last August. Watters was recommended, agreed to do it, and found himself sitting at a table with people such as Kenny Ortega, producer and choreographer for three Michael Jackson tours; the creators of Cirque de Soleil; and the designers of the Barcelona games. "Don and I really hit it off," says Watters, "and after the meetings, he said, 'Would you like to stay on and be music director?' I asked whether I would be composing, because that's what I am: a composer. I told him, 'If you want somebody who is just going to supervise other composers, I'll recommend someone, because I would want to be on board only if I am able to put my creative stamp on it.' He said, 'That's exactly why we want you.' I thought about it for about a second and said, 'Absolutely!'"

Mischer wanted the music to be like a dramatic underscore, rather than just arrangements to accompany various performers on the field, so a film composer made sense. Another famous film composer, John Williams, whom many people mistakenly believe was music director of the '84 L.A. Olympics, will again be a featured composer, conducting another fanfare and theme, "Summon the Heroes." It will be performed (and simultaneously recorded) with the Atlanta Symphony, which is the official orchestra--but only of the opening ceremonies. "It was a financial decision," Watters explains. "Quite frankly, we couldn't afford to have the Atlanta Symphony do both. You would think that at the Olympics, they would say, 'Here's a blank check. Do whatever you want to do.' It's astounding how tight things have been."

Instead, the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra will perform at the close. Other than Williams, Watters recruited Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, minimalist Philip Glass, Mr. Holland's Opus composer Michael Kamen, and Basil Poledouris, who wrote the score to Lonesome Dove. Watters was involved in all creative discussions about what music they'd be writing and what segments they'd be working on. "I rather greedily put my paws on the segments that I wanted to write," Watters confesses. Those include two segments of an ode to the South called "Summertime"; "The Run Through Time," which pays homage to cities that have hosted the Olympics in the past; the music that will be played when President Clinton enters the field with the heads of the Atlanta and International Olympic Committees; a fanfare for the entrance of the Olympic flag; and three pieces for the closing ceremonies.

Watters' piece de resistance may be "Faster, Higher, Stronger," written with L.A. lyricist Lorraine Feather for opera superstar Jessye Norman, a native of Augusta, Georgia. "Mischer had wanted to use the famous 'Ode to Joy' from Beethoven's Ninth over fireworks to conclude the show, the same as in Barcelona. I said no. That was done at every pops concert and something really special should be written for the Olympics. He said, 'Great, if you can write a piece better than that, we'll use it.' I said to myself, 'Oh, my gosh, what have I done!'"

Jessye Norman, who had done many big, live special events, realized that the initial version of the song wouldn't work. "It had a middle section in it that changed the mood," says Watters. "She knew that at the end of a three-hour show in a stadium with 80,000 people, you have to make sure you hold their attention every second, and the finale is so important. So we rewrote the piece, changed the chorus, and I must say she was absolutely right. Jessye embraced the song, became its champion, and made sure it got through all the various levels of approval." "Faster, Higher, Stronger" also will be reprised in the closing ceremonies by the 80-voice Morehouse College Glee Club.

And, of course, the TV network had its say. Watters wanted the opening "Summertime" segment to last 25 minutes, but he had to hone it down to 14 because of the commercials. "We actually got them back up to 15. Getting NBC to go 15 minutes without taking a commercial break took some major arm-twisting!"

Watters has always done it his way, going back to growing up in Irving, then a town of only 5,000. "I'm proud to say that at age 12, I appeared on Mr. Peppermint! The Beatles were really big, and every neighborhood had to have its own rock band. He would feature young rock bands--Beatles imitators--every morning. I was in sixth grade at Plymouth Park Elementary. We didn't sleep at all the night before; it was going to be our break into stardom. We did a Rolling Stones tune and a Monkees tune; we thought we were so bad!"

After graduating from MacArthur High School in 1973 as an all-state saxophonist, Watters chose the University of Southern California over the huge music school at North Texas State University (now University of North Texas). He intended to return home after graduation and be a band director, but student teaching made him realize he didn't have the passion to be a public-school music teacher and that he preferred performing and arranging. Later, on a lark, he took an extension course on composing for film at University of California at Los Angeles and was hooked, eventually giving up performing.

A friend working for the Atlanta Symphony knew that country diva Trisha Yearwood, who was doing a concert with the orchestra, needed orchestral arrangements, so he recommended Watters. Watters and Yearwood hit it off, and the concert went so well that Yearwood performed with several more orchestras, including the Dallas Symphony Pops last April at the Meyerson. Watters toned down Yearwood's usual country-rock show and included a lot of popular standards. He was her music director at a recent Hollywood Bowl tribute to Henry Mancini and will be with her at a concert in Canada in October.

Watters' other post-Olympic projects ("I'm sure it's going to be a big letdown afterward," he says) include completing a cello concerto and finishing for MGM the score of the first animated version of Babes in Toyland. The Disney version of the Victor Herbert classic with Frankie and Annette, he says, doesn't hold up, and he'll be giving the Herbert score a facelift, replacing most of the songs with original ones he's written with Olympics lyricist Feather. He's also doing songs for a TV series based on the animated movie hit, All Dogs Go to Heaven.

Watters says he loves animation, and it's good to have a resume with a lot of animation credits, but it's easy to get typecast. He hopes the Olympics will give him an opportunity to break out. He'll be coming home next month, when a bust of his father-in-law, Arlington mover-and-shaker Tom Vandergriff, is unveiled at the Ballpark in Arlington. (Watters met his wife, Vanessa, at a music class at USC.) By then, Vandergriff may be better known as Watters' relative rather than the other way around. But as awe-inspiring as he says it will be in Atlanta standing at the podium during the first downbeat, it will be quite humbling, as well: "I told the Atlanta Symphony members, 'I think you should take pride that you are wonderful people, in addition to being great musicians.' I think in the long run, that's more important. I certainly think it's more important in the big picture of life.

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