Classically grounded, musically distinct
Two UW-Eau Claire graduates succeed at very different musical careers
By Nancy Wesenberg '91
This is a tale of two cities … and of two UW-Eau Claire graduates who are pursuing successful but very different musical careers — one on the East Coast and one on the West.
While Larry Lelli revels in his hectic, unpredictable life as a successful Broadway and freelance drummer in New York City, Scott Pingel is on the opposite coast, happily settling into his more ordered but equally busy life as the principal bassist with the San Francisco Symphony.
Apart from success, you might not expect these two to have much in common. But both passed through UW-Eau Claire’s music department and Professor Robert Baca’s jazz program, and both once thought they’d become jazz musicians.
That they have each found success doing something quite different doesn’t surprise Baca at all. In fact, he is profoundly proud.
“Both these men did exactly what we pride ourselves on at UW-Eau Claire,” said Baca, affirming his passionate belief in the university’s commitment to a classically based music program. “Scott and Larry both learned their instruments extremely well, and they learned how to listen, and when you do that, you can play any kind of music you want.”
“The broad range of things we were exposed to at UW-Eau Claire made us flexible,” Lelli said. “They just teach you, ultimately, to be musical, and you can use that in any genre. After I left UW-Eau Claire, I always felt able to do anything I wanted.”
And that’s just what Lelli has done.
Between his 1990 graduation and his current role as drummer for the Broadway hit “The Producers,” Lelli took full advantage of that musical adaptability, first playing jazz in the Twin Cities, and then heading to Nashville and three years of touring — first with a country comedy duo and later with singer Doug Stone.
Lelli’s outgoing personality has continually helped him make the personal connections that can lead to auditions and jobs.
When Stone’s tour ended and Lelli decided to check out the music scene in New York City, he talked with other musicians who gave him the idea of substituting for drummers in Broadway musicals. A conversation with Michael Hinton, drummer for the show “Miss Saigon,” led to an invitation to sit in the orchestra pit to observe and, later, the opportunity to sub for Hinton one night in the show.
Although Lelli remembers that first time as terrifying, he made a wonderful impression.
He learned the scores for more Broadway shows like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Jekyll and Hyde,” and he began to get more calls for subbing.
“At one point I was subbing for nine different shows,” Lelli said.
In between he took advantage of any freelance opportunity that came along, and over the years the opportunities have been many and varied. He has played for numerous ad jingles and film soundtracks; in famous New York clubs like Studio 54 and The Knitting Factory; and with such pop singers and rockers as Sebastian Bach, The Mamas & The Papas and Vanessa Williams. Last fall he took a three-month leave from “The Producers” to perform in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” which won five Tony Awards. Lelli can be heard on the soundtrack from that show, and he appeared on the Tony Awards show telecast live from Radio City Music Hall. He also recently worked on the soundtrack for the Hollywood film version of “The Producers.”
Lelli credits a number of factors for his success at breaking into a tough field.
“I really made a concerted effort to break into the scene here and become a known commodity,” Lelli said. “Besides being known as a great drummer, I also wanted to be known as someone with a high degree of personal integrity.”
Although his reputation as a Broadway drummer now seems secure — last summer and fall he was featured in articles in Modern Drummer and International Musician magazines — Lelli said he still enjoys doing a variety of projects and the excitement of living in a city where he’s never sure what he might do or see next.
Lelli laughed as he remembered seeing fellow Blugold Scott Pingel rolling his bass down a New York City street one day. Pingel is about six years younger than Lelli, but they had crossed paths at UW-Eau Claire.
Pingel also remembers the encounter.
“I was on my way to play a concert with Madonna at Madison Square Garden,” Pingel said.
Back then Pingel also was living a hectic New York life. He was attending the Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship, focusing on classical bass with his teacher, Metropolitan Opera bassist Timothy Cobb, but on the weekends he was playing until the wee hours in a Brooklyn club with guitarist Vic Juris, continuing the love affair with jazz that had begun when he first picked up an electric bass in high school and continued even beyond his 1996 graduation from UW-Eau Claire.
Baca remembers Pingel as being equally gifted in both areas.
“Scott could impress a great jazz bassist like Victor Wooten enough to get him to tutor him over a speaker phone and then turn around and win an orchestral performance fellowship at one of the country’s most prestigious music schools,” Baca said.
But when the demands of two very different lifestyles began to wear down even the energetic Pingel, he decided to focus exclusively on classical music and the orchestra career Cobb assured him he could have.
“I was kind of burning out on jazz,” Pingel said. “Some aspects of the lifestyle especially — I knew I wanted greater financial stability and more of a family life. And besides, I was finding such sublime inspiration from orchestral music — Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 was so particularly moving to me — that I was almost compelled to switch.”
The fact that Pingel met his wife, cellist Iris Pingel, while they were both at the Manhattan School also may have played into that decision.
And that decision has led to an impressive list of accomplishments for a man just edging into his 30s. He has played in many of the finest music festivals and concert halls in North America, South America and Europe; has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the Metamorphosen Chamber Orchestra and the St. Lawrence String Quartet; and served as guest principal of the National Arts Center Orchestra in Canada. He played two years with the New World Symphony and two more years as the principal bassist with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra before assuming his current principal spot with the San Francisco Symphony, a position that had remained vacant for four years until Pingel auditioned and was offered the job over about 100 other professionals last June. As one of the youngest members of the orchestra, Pingel knows it’s unusual for someone his age to hold the principal position.
“But I like sitting principal,” Pingel said. “I enjoy the responsibility.”
And Pingel has had a very busy first few months. Last September, when Pingel had his official debut, the orchestra finished filming a segment about Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” for a PBS series to air in 2006; in October it recorded a live performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, to be released on CD later this year, and also worked with guest artist Itzhak Perlman. In November the orchestra toured Spain, Italy and Greece; in February it toured southern California for two weeks; and in March it performed at Carnegie Hall.
Might Pingel run into Lelli again some day?
“Oh yeah,” Pingel said, noting that the performance at Carnegie Hall is an annual event. “New York loves the San Francisco Symphony!”And if Pingel ever wants to hear some inspired drumming when he’s in New York, he may just want to take in a Broadway show.
Copyright © 2008, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Alumni Association
Last Updated: December 30, 2008