Born in Montreal, Scott Price recently became a Steinway Artist. He has been a leading figure in Quebec music, television and performing arts for many years as a composer and musical director. He started his professional career playing keyboards in the group Traxis and was one of the pioneers of the modern Quebec music scene of the early Eighties. He later worked with singer Diane Dufresne in 1985 on her Top Secrettour. He went on to work on stage with Quebec artists such as Céline Dion, Roch Voisine, André Gagnon and Robert Charlebois. He is the conductor and music director of Céline Dion. Price spoke to Steinway Editor in Chief Ben Finane in the office of Agence Goodwin in Montreal.
Your career path has led you away from classical music, but you are classically trained.
I started piano actually kind of late, around seven or eight years old. Typical suburban boy taking lessons a little to please his mother, but I ended up really enjoying it. I learned all my chords and scales and transposition — all that theory! I studied with the program from the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto. I didn’t go to Toronto, but they send examiners to every major city in Canada twice a year. I took a couple of pauses along the way. I got my ARCT (Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto) when I was twenty-two. I’ve never abandoned classical music as far as playing at home and playing for love, but I didn’t have the discipline as a young child to become a virtuoso. I started to really, really practice hard when I turned sixteen and I fell in love with the band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. With Keith Emerson, I realized ‘Hey, this guy can really play.’
Emerson had actual chops.
Exactly. He was brilliant in so many ways and one of them was how he would incorporate classical works into their performances — and he adapted stuff and arranged stuff and everything! So, that really, really tweaked my ears. I started to hit it and do scales and technique and really, really get into it. From that point on, I became really serious about music and never really did anything else.
Are there classical works you find yourself coming back to whether at home on the piano?
[Bach’s] Goldberg Variations. It’s funny, you go through phases. About fifteen or twenty years ago, I thought Beethoven was the end of the world and I would never play anything else other than Beethoven. I haven’t played any Beethoven professionally, but for fun I can’t leave it alone. But I haven’t played Beethoven probably in the last ten years. But now I feel myself starting to become interested in it again. I think the real classics — Mozart, Brahms, Bach, Beethoven — you never lose interest in those. I’m fifty-seven years old now. Only in the last four years I started to play any Chopin. I started playing the Ballades. I'm working on the fourth one now. I learned the first one, can’t play it like Horowitz or anything, but I can bash through it. It’s like, ‘My goodness, I should have started with Chopin thirty years ago!’
I recently discovered another composer when I was on tour with Céline [Dion] last year. It's funny. I think it was in Berlin perhaps. We were on a bus and this trumpet player played me this wild piano piece and I said, ‘Who's that?’ It was Nikolai Kapustin. Do you know him?
He has these 24 Preludes in Jazz Style, Opus 53. So, I’m working on those now. I like it because it’s a language that speaks to me. It’s really modern and the fact that there isn't a two-hundred-year-old tradition behind it kind of makes it easier for somebody like me, too.
That work straddles genres in a happy way.
It's true! I like that guy. What a whiz! He's obviously an exceedingly huge, complex musical mind as a composer.
So, maybe that’s a good transition to Céline, who herself grew up in Quebec and straddled that very unique Francophone culture. Every conversation I have when I’m here [in Montréal], I speak a mélange of French and English. In college during a year in France, we’d call that franglais.
That’s very good. I was gonna say that’s what we call it.
Right. But it’s a far more natural situation here, because you have a group of people who are generally fluent a hundred percent in both languages and shift back and forth, as needed, in the conversation.
Right. And some concepts, I’m sure you’d agree, are better expressed in a certain language. So, that's one reason why we switch back and forth so much. It’s to make yourself understood faster.
Tout à fait! There’s an indigenous transparency in certain French concepts and I’d imagine in certain American–English ones, too. Céline Dion started as more of a French language–centric singer.
She was completely French–Canadian singer. There was a woman who proceeded her. Very different physical presence and voice and personality: Ginette Reno, who was huge star in Quebec. I think she had chances to expand her horizons, but I think she got cold feet. Ironically, her manager at the time was René Angélil, who ended up managing Céline.
And marrying Céline.
Correct. Céline followed, in the beginning, in the Quebecois tradition: a big belter, big ballads. French Canadian Quebecois music has always been big on female singers that can really sing full-tilt big, heartfelt ballads. When Céline turned seventeen, eighteen, you could see a switch.
I think I get the feeling that Celine did something like the equivalent of Sting in her bedroom with a hairbrush as a fake microphone and she went through everything. She went through Barbara Streisand, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin because Céline —yes, I work for her and she's my boss — but she’s so impressive. She can sing anything. She’s got soul and she’s got chops. She still practices voice and takes voice lessons, but, and I could be wrong here, I don’t think she's ever studied classical vocal technique. But I’m sure she could do it.
I think she could, too, and I think that’s also a misconception: this perceived barrier to entry to classical music.
It’s somehow at the top of this musical pyramid —
— that doesn't exist.
The first huge show I worked on with Celine was in 2008. It was for the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, and her band was unavailable so they hired me. We had a small orchestra, but it was still a fifteen-piece string section and couple of French horns and some other horns. After that is when she incorporated the orchestra into her Vegas show. It’s been ten years that we’ve been saying we have to do a record of Céline with just a string orchestra or with Céline, piano, and string orchestra because it leaves so much space for her voice — and I honestly think that's going to happen eventually.
Being conductor and musical director, for Céline, what does that entail? How do you work with her and other musicians on a show? She still has her Vegas residency?
For those who don’t know, once you go to Las Vegas and set up shop as a singer, as a diva, as a show, as a Penn & Teller, that means that you have achieved a certain level of popular penetration where — much like Billy Joel in Madison Square Garden for his monthly show — that you’re just a guaranteed act. That’s really special. When did that shift occurred for her?
She did it in 2002. From what I hear the brains behind it was René Angélil, her manager. was really the Colonel Tom Parker to Elvis, that was the fifty–fifty deal. René Angélil Was an absolutely brilliant man who had great audacious ideas, lot of confidence, but he would risk things, too. He put everything he owned into Celine and obviously it paid off.
Yes. I believe he mortgaged his house for Céline’s first album. Is that correct?
Yeah. That’s the anecdote and I think it’s true. He had things in life that he liked. He was sort of a gambler and he liked to hang around Vegas. That probably played into it to. It’s a win–win. I know some people who were very skeptical about the viability of Céline being a resident in Las Vegas, because at the time it was still a little bit of a graveyard for artists in the early 2000s. Céline sometimes ad libs in her show at the beginning, talking and switching subjects. Every show is different. We never know. A theme she comes back to quite often is, ‘I started here in 2002 and I was supposed to be here for three weeks, and I’m still here.’ So, I think she’s really upped the bar. They did construct the coliseum for her, the four-thousand-three-hundred-seat arena. I don’t know if you've been there, but it’s a beautiful, beautiful hall. Sight lines are great. The sound is really good.
So, if you’re Caesars Place and you have forty-three hundred people coming in four nights a week, and Céline sells out every show, Just think if five hundred people stick around and gamble for an hour: it’s good for the casino, and I think it opened a lot of eyes. A lot of people started to look at Las Vegas with a lot less cynicism.
That’s well said. Take me behind the scenes in a daily operation of when you’re working on a Céline show.
Céline always has something cooking. When we go to Las Vegas, we go for three and a half weeks. We do four shows a week. Say she’s doing the American Music Awardsin two months. So, we’ll have a meeting what song we’re going to do. We’ll check out the arrangement. If there’s a new arrangement to be done, I’ll take care of it. I love writing for orchestra, for strings and brass and everything.
I started with her in August 2015. We revamped the Las Vegas show quite a bit. A third of the show was new at that time, and since then we’ve changed about another third of the show. The big hits are still there and haven’t really changed, but a lot of the arrangements have been redone. I have a hotel room with a little studio in there, with LogicPro, like we have here [on the interviewer’s laptop+ a USB mic]. I would do demos and stuff and write arrangements and send copies. Then we could go downstairs and soundcheck at 4:30; at five o’clock we’d run through with the orchestra. Then Céline comes in at 5:15, and she’s so damn fast. She’s just awesome. She just comes in and nine times out of ten she likes it. So, I’m happy.
A big part of my job is to keep Céline stimulated. She could come in and sing two songs and make sure her mic works and her earphones works and she’s happy, but she always sticks around till the last minute. We’re supposed to free the stage at six. She'll usually keep me till 6:10, 6:15. She likes to jam. She likes to say ‘Do you know this song?’ We'll try songs together and stuff like that.
Presently, we’re in preparation for the Asian tour. I’ll see her in two weeks. Sometimes we take songs, say five songs, shorten them a bit and create a medley. Add transitions, key changes, stuff like that. There’s always something to do as a musical director.
Not to compare her to Michael Jackson, but I feel like she has the same sort of fluidity and fluency in music the way he did, from what I’ve observed in rehearsal and performance.
Interesting point. It’s a good comparison. They live music. They can sing anything. They can hear. They can physically express it. They move well.
So, in situations with Céline where you’re wood-shedding or working on a tune or in the studio, what’s the process there as far as artistic collaboration?
It’s very fluid. Either she’ll start something or she likes when I start something. Any pattern I start at all, she’ll start singing on top of it. One thing that I’ve discovered working with her the last two, three years are her talents as a lyricist. She comes up with these lines off the top of her head. She’s just creative, a fountain of ideas — musical, lyrical, all kinds of things.
Céline doesn’t write her songs presently, but could you could see her doing more as a singer–songwriter?
I could see her at least writing half the songs of a record, but it would be a real leap. She would need good collaborators. But she has ideas and she has things to say. Now it’s no secret, as a fifty-year-old woman, she has to have lyrics that relate to her life. If it’s not believable, she’s not gonna do it.
Often we’ll hear a song and say, ‘This is good. This is bad. I liked it. I didn’t like it,’ when really the question we are trying to answer is ‘Were you convinced?’
That’s the key to it all. ‘Were you convinced?’ and also ‘Can you relate to it? Did it touch you?’ There are a lot of people with good voices. There are lots of people who sing well, but there aren’t that many great artists and performers. You mentioned Michael Jackson. And I’d add Prince. People who are on that level.
Céline to me is on that level. She’s up there. They’re born with a lot of it and a lot of it is accumulated. They’re sponges. It’s by osmosis! They just absorb all this stuff from around them and mix with some exhibitionism. She needs to perform; she’s on all the time. Even when she’s not doing a show, if Céline comes into a room, she’s the center of attention. She’s very riveting.
I think at that level of performance, you have to be an extrovert and you also have to be able to draw on your introverted tendencies — when it’s just you hammering away at a track.
Yep, yep. Depending on the lyrical content of the song, too. She can close up and sing in her head voice so softly and so beautifully — and then next verse belting out full chest voice.
So you’re about to become a Steinway artist.
So they say.
So they say.
I would love to be.
It’s happening. I've seen the paperwork.
Okay. I’m very pleased!
Tell me about your Steinway.
Last year we did a tour of Europe for about two months and I said, ‘At this point in my life, if I do things right, I'd be able to afford it.’ When I was studying piano, I didn’t really have a good instrument to learn on.
It makes a difference, and you don’t know it as a kid. You don’t realize how much it’s jangling in your ear.
I have a tendency to over-pedal and I know a lot of it is because when I was —
You were trying to work that instrument!
Trying to make sound come out of it, you know?
I bought my first grand piano, a Heintzman, when I was about twenty-five years old. It was a hundred years old and had seen better days. Then I ended up with an Estonia. I mentioned Emerson, Lake, and Palmer at the beginning of our interview; on this record Trilogyby Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Keith Emerson in his credits includes “Steinway Piano, Model D,” the Steinway concert grand. I know that really marked me. I used to go to a lot of concerts, and I still do. Ninety-nine percent of the time here in Montreal, they’re Steinways. To me, Steinway has always been the epitome not only of a classy brand, but also something that the quality lives up to the reputation. So, when I came back from this tour, I said, let’s do it. I went to Pianos Bolduc here in Montreal and they were very helpful to me. So now I’m the proud owner of a Steinway Model B.
That’s very good. I like the B. Pianists often refer to the Model B as ‘the perfect piano’ for its balance and versatility.
I understand why. Mine is very rich and warm sounding. Being as it’s brand new it’s not bright at all yet. There was a very good Model A beside it too, but I played on them both for hours and I remember thinking, ‘Long-term: just the resonance, just the way the keys feel, take the B. It’s worth it.’
For solo piano recitals, I really like it as an instrument. It’s warm enough. It has enough range. It’s not overpowering.
In a how-many-seat hall do you think it could go up to? 600 seats?
Sure! For readers, the grands in ascending order go S, M, O, A, B, D.
The C doesn’t exist anymore, does it?
The Model C is still produced in Steinway’s Hamburg Factory.
C used to be a popular piano, right?
How long is it?
It sits at 8 feet, 5 inches, between a Model B (6’ 11”) and a Model D (8’ 11¾”).
The B fits really well in my living room. I plan on doing some recording at home with it.
When you play at home —
The lid is open.
Do you sit at the piano when you write or when you arrange or do you tend to do that just on the computer or paper and pen?
My studio is downstairs in my basement, and I’m pretty traditional when it comes to writing arrangements, so I’m pen and paper. Some people like to put stuff into a sequencer and send it to a copyist, but to me the process works better actually writing down the notes. My Steinway is upstairs, but sometimes I set a table beside it and I can arrange on the piano. But the piano for me is different: it's the inspiration. Sometimes, I'll sit down at it while water’s boiling for three minutes and sometimes I’ll sit down at it for four hours. It’s just very centrally located in the house and looks amazing. And it sounds incredible. Everyone, my children and my wife, they like it. It never bothers anybody. They all like to hear it. I like to hear my kids too playing it. They like it.
Well, we are excited to have you in the family. Good luck with your Céline tours. You said Asia is coming up?
Yeah, I'm excited! We’re going to Tokyo, Makou, Singapore, Bangkok, Manila.
That speaks to the universal reach of her music. I don’t imagine that these are all fluent English speakers (or French speakers) that she’ll be performing for, yet that message carries.
Oh, for sure!