May 02--"They're so smart, such quick learners. I feel like they're kind of my gift to the world. And I know Garrison feels the same way." -- ROB FISHER, Broadway music director and Norfolk native
At right: Daniela, left, Nadia and Christine DiGiallonardo talk with Keillor during one of his shows in December. Photo credit: Courtesy Photo -- Prairie Home Productions
The sister act, the Broadway gigs, the appearances on "A Prairie Home Companion" -- it all began with Nadia DiGiallonardo's penmanship. * As assistant to the Broadway music director Rob Fisher, her job was to mark his musical scores as he wished. * "I hadn't actually met him, but he really liked my handwriting," she said. Based on those labors, Fisher invited her to assist him beyond that first job at New York City Center, where he organized the Encores series of musical revivals.
As they worked together, Fisher learned about her two sisters, and how musical they all are.
He went nuts for them, thought they were immensely talented, and soon was plotting their evolution as a harmonizing vocal trio, a cross between the Andrews Sisters and a doo-wop group.
Fisher got them on "A Prairie Home Companion" in 2010. The creator and host of that public radio show, Garrison Keillor, noted their virtues, too. "I knew Garrison would love them," said Fisher, a Norfolk native who has been a frequent guest on Keillor's program. "They're so smart, such quick learners. I feel like they're kind of my gift to the world. And I know Garrison feels the same way."
Keillor has invited them back on "A Prairie Home" at least 10 times. Their next appearance will be Saturday in Norfolk at the Ted Constant Convocation Center at Old Dominion University as part of the Virginia Arts Festival. Keillor's weekly radio show airs locally on WHRV-FM 89.5 and has 4 million listeners on more than 600 stations.
This week's two-hour show will include all of its usual tongue-in-cheek, retro-radio features -- sketches about cowboys and about a private eye named Guy Noir, sound effects and radio actors, jingles for pretend products, a Keillor yarn based on fictional Lake Wobegon and a slew of musical acts, including the trio of sisters from Brooklyn.
By calling them The DiGiallonardo Sisters during their first appearance on his variety show, Keillor gave the group a name. Now he's producing an album for them in Norfolk. It will be recorded live Sunday afternoon during their concert with Fisher at the Virginia Arts Festival headquarters in downtown Norfolk. They'll perform a range of material that could include the Andrew Sisters, the Beach Boys, the Beatles or even Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Yet again, Nadia, Christine and Daniela DiGiallonardo will be astonished at their good fortune. "And to do the Virginia Arts Festival, which I've been hearing about for years," Nadia DiGiallonardo said last week. "Now we get to do that, and do a CD.
"It's totally a pinch-me thing."
The sisters grew up singing harmonies at home around the piano. They performed in community theater, too, and all through school.
Daniela, now 38, began as the lead singer. These days, Christine, 33, sings the melody as the others harmonize.
Daniela tends to choose the harmony part she's most comfortable with, Nadia said. "And I jump around and fill in the holes, basically. I have to work the hardest, but it comes the easiest to me."
Nadia, 35, is the one with perfect pitch. On the piano, she can play any song she's ever heard, in any key. "She has more musical gifts than anyone I've ever met," Fisher said. "Just kind of freakish gifts. She has a photographic memory for music."
They lucked into an artsy junior high school, where they learned madrigal, classical and a cappella singing and how to sight-read music.
Daniela became a social studies teacher, Nadia got into design and Christine found work as a jingles singer. Music stayed in their lives. They had a cover band together for a while. They sang in church choirs and a semiprofessional concert choir.
Then Nadia left her kitchen design job in 2001 to work for Fisher. "With all the projects he was working on and all the people he knows, he took the time to get to know me. He welcomed me into his world 150 percent," she said.
Nadia worked with him on an Encores production of the musical "Hair" that went to Central Park, where he eventually had her take over as conductor and music director.
She had never conducted before. "I'm glad they forced me to get over that fear and do that," Nadia said. Now she's music supervisor for the Broadway revival of "Pippin," which opened last week.
That first "Prairie Home" show was scary for the sisters. They prepared songs for Keillor and stood before him and sang.
"He would sit and listen quietly, and you couldn't get a read on him," Nadia said. "And then he would say, after hearing all these things, 'OK, I want you to do the first half of that Bach piece' -- like a Bach chorale we learned in church." But he wanted them to sing it as a doo-wop number.
Then he asked them to blend two Beatles songs, to sing "I've Just Seen a Face" very quietly and then go right into the final oohs of "Mother Nature's Son."
"It was like this beautiful little gem," she recalled. "He creates these little moments that are just so beautiful. They really paint a picture."
As they continued to come on the show, Keillor handed them more challenges. "He would start hitting us with, 'Oh, I want you to do this commercial. Go write this jingle.' "
He would hand them lyrics and give them maybe 10 minutes to do it.
"We would go backstage and just panic. Little by little, we would come up with it. And now we get there and we know to expect that every time. And now we love it."
"You have to have fearlessness. You have to just go for it. And be willing to see what comes out."
One time Keillor had them re-create the sound of vocal harmonies on a fast-forwarding tape. "Is he kidding us? Of course, we were able to do it, which was surprising to us."
That's Keillor's way. The show comes together over two days and continually evolves, even during the broadcast. Watch carefully and you might see him reach over and mark up the script while an actor is reading it.
"I listen back and it sounds so calm. And we're shuffling around, cue cards are flying. The stuff they're coming up with in the moment, it's mind-boggling. But he maintains this air of calm," Nadia said.
"What he does is -- and he's so smart about this -- he forces you to think on your feet so that the stuff that comes out has a really fresh, spontaneous quality.
"And that is what makes it as good as it is."
Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,firstname.lastname@example.org
if you go
What Live radio broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion" with host/writer Garrison Keillor
Where Ted Constant Convocation Center, 4320 Hampton Blvd., Norfolk
When 5:45 p.m. Saturday
Cost $25 to $65
Contact 282-2822, www.vafest.org
On the radio From 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday on WHRV-FM 89.5; a rebroadcast will air Sunday 10 a.m. to noon
What Rob Fisher and The DiGiallonardo Sisters
Where Robin Hixon Theater, Clay and Jay Barr Education Center, 440 Bank St., Norfolk
When 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Contact 282-2822, www.vafest.org
(c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
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