Hooked on Symphonics

Rock-meets-Classical collaborations broaden appeal for all involved

Jul 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Symphonic Pops concerts long ago discovered Rock. The legendary Arthur Fiedler and his Boston Pops Orchestra, for instance, scored a hit single with their timely version of The Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964, the same year as the British Invasion kicked off.

But now Rock and Pop musicians and orchestras are trying some interesting new experiments to try to keep fresh, and maybe reinvent, an approach that too often has become formulaic.

One upcoming local example occurs Tuesday when Sting brings his own symphonic roadshow to Riverbend. He's traveling with the 45-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra led by Steven Mercurio, who conducted Cincinnati Opera’s 2008 production of Florencia en Amazon.

Since Fiedler, Pops orchestras have developed a Baby Boomer following by featuring concerts with the most iconic (or nostalgic) aging rockers and Top 40 hit-makers, who sing and play backed by woodwinds, strings, brass and everything else at the orchestra’s disposal.

The Cincinnati Pops under the late Erich Kunzel — in many ways an heir to Fiedler — certainly embraced that as part of its repertoire, working over the years with America, The Temptations, Three Dog Night, Art Garfunkel and Peter Frampton. And as it searches for a new conductor, this season has featured the music of various acts — the Pops were hired by an outside promoter to support a touring tribute band in The Music of Abba and this Saturday’s program at Riverbend is Endless Summer: The Music of the Beach Boys. The Pops, by the way, is the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra but with a different identity and conductor/music director.

But there now seems to be a newer kind of Rock-meets-Classical collaboration emerging in which contemporary music acts — many from the Indie and Alternative Rock worlds — seek out orchestras (or vice versa) to try something new, be it previously composed material with new arrangements or brand new work.

It’s Pops, yes, but it also overlaps with the function of traditional symphony orchestras to present important new work. Among the artists who have done this are Ben Folds, Joanna Newsom, The Decemberists, Cowboy Junkies, Belle & Sebastian, Antony & the Johnsons and the Clogs, which features Cincinnati native Bryce Dessner of The National and violist/arranger Padme Newsome. Often such acts have a gentler, acoustic side to their work. But there are exceptions.

“I think there’s an openness in music now, with bands turning to different kinds of World music, and it’s opening up people’s ears,” says Joey Burns, a co-leader of the Arizona-based Calexico, which played with an orchestra for the first time this winter in Louisville.

The band shared the bill with Airborne Toxic Event as part of a special series, preparing new arrangements of its songs to allow the 70-piece Louisville Orchestra to share a role. Calexico is known for mixing Rock, Southwestern, Mexican and experimental sounds to achieve a “cinematic” quality in its music that's sometimes compared to Ennio Morricone’s scores for Sergio Leone’s westerns.

“A lot of experimental and contemporary music today crosses definitions and genres,” Burns says. “It’s pushing boundaries of what is classified as a Rock band or Folk band and resonates in our make-up. (Our audiences) enjoy that open window to peer out and hear something not normally heard within their categories.”

Sting is an artist who meets this new Pops movement halfway. At age 58, with hits going back to the early 1980s, he’s ripe for the Pops “Rock icon” circuit.

On the other hand, Sting has always had an adventurous musical streak — he's worked with Algerian Rai musician Cheb Mami and recorded an album of songs by 16th-century British composer and lutenist John Dowland. At Riverbend, he and the orchestra (plus several back-up musicians and singers, including his longtime guitarist Dominic Miller) will be doing material from throughout his career, drawn heavily from his new orchestral album Symphonicities.

“This was quite a job,” Mercurio, Sting’s conductor on the tour, says during an on-the-road phone interview. “Sting and I were both on the same page in terms of what we wanted to accomplish. We didn’t want the orchestra to just accompany the Pop songs, which happens often when the orchestra is playing whole notes behind (the performer), nor did we want it to be a typical Pops kind of concert where the orchestra dominates and the poor Pop person is a little bit out of water. We wanted to find the perfect balance.

“There were six of us doing orchestrations and arrangements, and we spent a lot of time getting the right feel. We worked hard to make sure to have a balance as much as possible. On songs like ‘Why Should I Cry for You,’ the orchestra allows for more of a real string section, but the music is the same, more or less. But a song like ‘Russians’ is completely retooled for the orchestra — at the beginning I put on the coronation scene from Boris Godunov (an opera by Modest Mussorgsky) because the piece is about Russians. Using the incredibly profound coronation scene and then going right into his song is a way of orchestration different from just placing the orchestra in the piece.”

If there is a movement underway to artfully reinvigorate the ways that Rock meets Classical, the CSO’s role won’t be known until it fills the positions left by Kunzel’s death and CSO Music Director Paavo Jarvi’s pending departure. But in Louisville, experimentation has a strong fan in Jason Weinberger, the Louisville Orchestra’s 35-year-old resident conductor who helmed the Calexico/Airborne Toxic Event concert. He marvels at the difference between the crowd it drew and a typical Classical music crowd.

“One of the differences is the impact on social media,” Weinberger says. “There just arises all this buzz on places like Facebook and Twitter. And right afterward you see short clips from people’s phones show up on Twitter. Audiences just don’t do that at typical orchestra concerts.

"It’s really a neat thing for orchestras to be in the conversation in places where we’re typically not part of it. That’s very healthy for orchestras.”

STING performs with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra July 20 at Riverbend. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.