Mike “Rhino” Rihner is a 3rd generation New Orleans resident who has lived in the Crescent City all his life. Mike began piano lessons at age 8, and then he went on to study guitar, bass, and drums while he was a student at Jesuit High School in New Orleans. Mike marched in the Jesuit drum line for four years and also in dozens of Mardi Gras parades. Mike also got involved in theater and was cast in the lead role of the Jim Dale comedy, “Scapino.” He was also cast as “Flute, the Bellows Mender” in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” After high school, Mike began touring regionally as lead singer and keyboardist with the New Orleans band, “Stilletto,” which toured all across the south. After two years of intense regional performing, Mike began his collegiate music studies at the University of New Orleans.
While at UNO, Mike studied jazz improvisation with Ellis Marsalis and classical composition and theory with Dr. Jerry Sieg. During this time, Mike played all over New Orleans in various ensembles, including the locally renowned band, “South.” Mike then formed his own trio, “Zone One,” which performed for several years in the New Orleans area. While at UNO, Mike remained actively involved in theater, being cast as the “One-Man-Band” in the production of “Planet Fires,” among other shows. Mike was appointed Musical Director for two UNO musical theater productions, “The Fantastiks,” and “Hair,” and he composed original soundtrack music for the UNO Video Department.
In 1989, Mike received a Southeastern Composers League Classical Composition Award for one of his original chamber music pieces. Mike completed his studies at UNO in the summer of 1989 through the international student exchange program and traveled abroad to study advanced music composition at the University of Innsbruck, in Innsbruck, Austria.
In the summer of 1990, Mike began what would be a regular summer gig as Pianist and Entertainment Director in the historic hotels and lodges of Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. In 1991, Mike joined the award-winning contemporary jazz group from New Orleans, “Entourage,” and was also named the pianist for the New Orleans-based classic jazz-swing vocal group, “In the Mood.” These two groups performed extensively at major festivals, music clubs, and college campuses, opening up for such notable jazz greats as guitarist Larry Carlton, banjo master Bela Fleck, and clarinetist Pete Fountain.
In 1992, Mike was awarded a graduate assistantship to continue his music studies at the LSU School of Music in Baton Rouge. He received his Master of Music degree in 1994, the same year that he was awarded the Louisiana Jazz Composers Award and Grant, sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and The Louisiana Arts Council via Musicians for Music. A half-hour video performance/documentary of several of Mike’s original modern jazz pieces was video recorded in 1995 and was subsequently broadcast for the next several years. This music documentary of some of Mike’s music is still occasionally broadcast on local cable TV Cox channel 10 in New Orleans.
This music video eventually inspired the recording and the release of the “Rhino and the Safari Men” debut CD in 1998, and it was then that the “Rhino” band was born. “Rhino and the Safari Men” went on to perform at several major festivals and music clubs in the New Orleans area, including Tipitinas, the Howling Wolf, Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The “Rhino” band also appeared many times on local music television programs “L-TV,” “New Orleans Live,” and “Louisiana Jukebox.”
In 1996, Mike began his professional teaching career in the music department at Delgado Community College and simultaneously in the Loyola University College of Music in New Orleans. In 1997, Mike was offered an instructor position in the music department at the famed New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Mike held all three prestigious teaching positions until 2001, when he then decided to work full-time at NOCCA. Mike served as Chairman of the NOCCA Music Department from 2002-2004, and he is now the director of the NOCCA Jazz Big Band, Coordinator of the Music Theory Curriculum, and gives daily instruction to vocal, jazz, and classical instrumental music students.
After the success of “Rhino and the Safari Men,” Mike decided to go in a more acoustic direction, and he subsequently recorded and produced two original full-length compact discs of acoustic modern jazz. This new band, titled the “Rhino Acoustic Project,” recorded “The Path Less Traveled” (2002) and “Big Fish in a Small Pond” (2004.) This dynamic group of stellar New Orleans jazz musicians performed at many notable music venues, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
In the fall of 2004, Mike was commissioned by Mr. John Davies in British Columbia to compose an orchestral suite based on his original piano music from the “Glacier Park Piano Reflections” CD. (recorded and produced in 2002.) The resulting seven-movement orchestral work, the “Waterton-Glacier Suite,” was premiered in Vancouver, Canada in May 2005 by the New Westminster Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Jack Zheng, with Mike Rihner at the piano.
In 2005, Mike was awarded a grant from the SURDNA Foundation in New York to compose another large-scale orchestral work. This SURDNA grant led to the composition of the “New Orleans Suite,” a six-movement symphonic suite based on famous scenes and places in New Orleans. The “New Orleans Suite” was premiered at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts in May 2006 by GNOYO, under the direction Maestro David Torns.
In 2006, Mike returned to the recording studio to compose and produce another full-length modern jazz CD project. Inspired by a famous science fiction novel by author Douglas Adams, this adventurous foray into electric jazz-fusion contains 12 exciting tracks. The Rhino Electric Band’s “Guide to the Galaxy,” was released in 2007.
In 2008, Mike formed a modern classic rock trio with some long-time musical friends, guitarist Danny Duplantier and drummer James Cabiran. “Omega 3” has since become a popular band and has performed throughout New Orleans at large music halls, music clubs, fairs and festivals, including the French Quarter Festival.
World-famous Carnegie Hall in New York was the setting for the second major performance of Mike’s “New Orleans Suite” by GNOYO in June of 2009. Under the direction of Maestro Jean Montes, GNOYO executed an exciting and polished performance. Chosen by GNOYO to showcase both Rihner’s music and the great city of New Orleans all in the same work, the “New Orleans Suite” received fond applause at it’s conclusion from the capacity crowd in the historic music hall.
On the first weekend of spring in 2010, Mike made his opera debut as a singer in the chorus of the New Orleans Opera Association’s production of Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman.” Under the direction of choral director Carol Rausch and Maestro Robert Lyall, the “Dutchman” was performed on March 19 and 21 in New Orleans at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of Performing Arts.
In the summer of 2010, Mike had select movements from his “Waterton-Glacier Suite” performed, quite appropriately, by none other than the Glacier Symphony and Chorale under the direction of Maestro John Zoltec. This symphonic summer concert was on Saturday July 10 in Kalispell, Montana. Over 2,000 people were in attendance.
In June 2011, Mike conducted the New Orleans Civic Symphony in a performance of his latest orchestra composition, “Song of Summer.” This 15 minute orchestra piece featured beautiful lyrical melodies and lush harmony.
In September 2014, Mike was awarded a national composition award by the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park to compose the “Battle of New Orleans” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the legendary conflict. Mike composed a 10-movement suite for depicting the major events in the historic Battle of New Orleans. The suite was recorded by John Mahoney’s Big Band and performed at many locations throughout the city in 2015, including the New Orleans Mint Theater, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Snug Harbor, and also at the Chalmette Battlefield.
In June 2015, Mike returned to Carnegie Hall in New York with GNOYO to perform his latest orchestral suite, “New Orleans Symphonic Dances.” This suite depicts the many cultural influences in New Orleans. This 20th anniversary tour of the orchestra also included performances in South Carolina, Virginia, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
In August 2019, Mike was invited to work as a faculty member at the Alaska Jazz Workshop at the University of Anchorage for it’s summer jazz program, directed by John Damberg. Mike was a featured visiting artist, along with Seattle trumpet player Jay Thomas.
In October 2019 the Rhino Electric Band performed at the Slidell Jazz and Blues Festival in Heritage Park.
In early March 2020, Mike returned to Vancouver Canada for another orchestral performance of the “Waterton-Glacier Suite.” This performance in New Wetsminster at the Massey Theater was in celebration of the 125th anniversary of Waterton National Park in British Columbia.
In July 2020, GNOYO will be celebrating their 25th anniversary performing on an orchestral tour of southern France. Mike’s “New Orleans Symphonic Dances” will be featured by the orchestra again in July 2020 on this international tour. The orchestra, directed by maestro Jean Montes, will perform at various venues along the famous French Rivera.