Orchestras get behind rock with a string of recordings

April 03, 1995|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Chuck Berry knew all along.

Remember in "Roll Over, Beethoven," when he announced it was time for ol' Ludwig van to "tell Tchaikovsky the news"? Most of us thought the song was saying that rock and roll records were going to push classical music off the airwaves, but Berry's actual meaning went deeper.

What he saw was a day when even symphony orchestras would be "rockin' in two-by-two."

And he was right. The symphony scene is really starting to rock.

Granted, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky haven't quite been stricken from the symphony schedules yet. But that may be only a matter of time, as the number of symphonic rock albums grows from a trickle to a torrent.

Why, in just the past few months, CD buyers have been tantalized by such titles as "Fortress: The London Symphony Orchestra Performs the Music of Sting"; "The Queen Collection," with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Louis Clark; "Classic Moody Blues Hits" with the Frankfurt Rock Orchestra and guest vocalist Justin Hayward, as well as the similarly titled "Classic Toto Hits," with vocalist Bobby Kimball; and "Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones," with the London Symphony Orchestra and singers Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull and Michael Hutchence.

This intermingling of the electric and the symphonic isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Rock musicians -- English rockers in particular -- have long aspired to Symphony Hall legitimacy. Whether this penchant for violins stems from a deeply felt desire to raise rock and roll's artistic standards or simply reflects the social inferiority complexes of ambitious middle-class musicians is hard to say, but there's no denying that it has led to some utterly dreadful music.

Who can forget (or would ever want to replay) such misbegotten megaworks as "Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic" or Procol Harum's "In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra"?

On the whole, most art-rock attempts to bring a sense of symphonic grandeur to the gritty world of rock and roll were overreaching embarrassments, be they as campy as the Electric Light Orchestra's semi-symphonic arrangement of "Roll Over, Beethoven" or as earnest as Emerson, Lake & Palmer's rocked-up rendition of "Pictures at an Exhibition."

'Classic Rock'

Still, rockers weren't the only ones trying to rush rock and classical to the altar. In the '60s, when grown-ups wary of Beatlemania searched desperately for a way of dealing with their fondness for such tunes as "Michelle" and "Yesterday," the Boston Pops responded with an entire album of symphonic Beatles music. A decade later, after the phrase "rock opera" had gone from being an oxymoron to an actual genre, the London Symphony Orchestra lent its services to a fully orchestrated version of the Who's "Tommy."

But it wasn't until 1979 that symphonic rock truly came into its own. That was the year the London Symphony Orchestra's "Classic Rock, Volume One" was released, with its full-on renditions of such unlikely orchestral fare as Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love," the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and 10cc's "I'm Not In Love."

Alas, the LSO was a tad too far ahead of the curve with that one -- if a "Volume Two" was recorded, it wasn't released in this country -- but it definitely had the right idea. Instead of taking the usual route, in which the orchestra merely added string-and-horn "sweetening" to standard rock-band arrangements, the LSO seized the stage for itself, relegating the electric guitars to supporting roles behind the violins, cellos, clarinets and bassoons.

Amazingly enough, it worked. As hard as it is to imagine "Whole Lotta Love" sounding anything but silly without Jimmy Page and Robert Plant on hand, the arrangement Andrew Pryce Jackman created for the LSO credibly converted Led Zep's ominous bluster to orchestral terms. It wasn't a simple transcription, in which each of the original voices is assigned an orchestral equivalent; Jackman was smart enough to flesh out the tune's melodic and harmonic content so the piece seemed to fit orchestral mode without undercutting its rhythmic momentum.

Way's way

Sadly, that's a lesson many latter-day orchestrators have yet to learn.

Take, for example, the arrangements conductor Darryl Way generated for "Fortress: The London Symphony Orchestra Performs the Music of Sting" (Angel 55344).

Although Way certainly makes the most of the music's melodic content, he doesn't seem much interested in expanding the compositional scope of Sting's songs. Most of his arrangements are straight transcriptions with only the slightest instrumental elaboration, like the monster-movie soundtrack flourishes sprinkled through "Synchronicity II" or the chirping strings that flutter beneath the verses of "King of Pain." That adds a bit of color, but never comes close to conveying the rhythmic energy of the originals, so selections such as "Invisible Sun" or "Every Breath You Take" chug along with the glib blandness of well-bred mood music.

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