In its youth, rock and roll seemed almost contemptuous of classical music. Derisively dismissing it as "long-hair stuff" -- this was before the Beatles, back when conductor Leopold Stokowski had longer tresses than any teen idol -- these first-generation rockers saw symphonic music as stodgy, dated and about to be pushed into extinction. "Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news," chortled Chuck Berry.
Today's rock stars, however, hardly seem as cocksure of rock's innate superiority. In fact, a fair number of them seem to be trying to defect.
Billy Joel capped the release of his third volume of greatest hits by announcing that he was retiring from rock in order to devote his time to classical composition.
Nor is he alone. Paul McCartney wrote and recorded an oratorio a few years back and has a new symphonic poem, "Standing Stone," in the stores. Lou Reed, whose own vocals are limited to a two- or three-note range, has an operatic piece called "Time Rocker" running in New York; Joe Jackson (remember the new wave hit, "Is She Really Going Out with Him"?) recently recorded an album of chamber music; and Mark O'Connor, considered one of Nashville's most valuable players, composed his own violin concerto.
All this on top of Elvis Costello working with string quartets, David Byrne writing ballets and Linda Ronstadt doing "Mimi" in "La Boheme."
Don't take these tidbits to mean that rock has rolled over and it's Beethoven who's news, however. Truth is, for every pop star aspiring to improve his or her artistic reputation by dabbling in "serious music," there are a half dozen classical musicians hoping to improve their sales by dabbling in popular music.
It started with opera stars. From Jose Carreras to Kiri Te Kanawa, singers schooled in Mozart and Puccini are filling recital albums with Kern and Porter. Luciano Pavarotti, the most ambitious of the bunch, has done sessions with Celine Dion and U2. Can duets with Garth Brooks be far behind?
But current manifestations of rock mania run even deeper. Just look at Billboard. It isn't just that McCartney tops the trade magazine's Classical charts; his "Standing Stone" is joined by such pop-oriented titles as Yo-Yo Ma's "Piazzolla: The Soul of the Tango" and the London Philharmonic's "Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin."
Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, sad to say, are currently off the charts.
Still, as strange as it may seem to see an album of orchestral Led Zeppelin on the classical charts, "Kashmir" (Point 454-145) is actually a pretty impressive piece of work -- even if it does exist in a fairly dodgy musical neighborhood.
London orchestras have been recording versions of rock hits for the better part of two decades now. Some of these albums, like the 1994 RCA release "Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones," make a good-faith effort to bring a little class to the proceedings, but most are just dreck. "The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays the Music of Oasis" (Music Club 50043) is typical, offering a dozen Oasis songs in dreary, elevator music-style orchestrations. If there's a waiting room in hell's dentist office, this is the album they're playing.
"Kashmir," by contrast, actually does create an orchestral context for Led Zeppelin's music. Instead of the sing-along simplicity of most rock-orchestral settings, where strings purr quietly as trombones bark the melody, the arrangements Jaz Coleman has constructed makes full use of the orchestra's potential.
It helps, of course, that Coleman is himself a rocker, having started out playing keyboards in the post-punk band Killing Joke. But he's equally at home in the classical milieu, understanding that it takes more than a catchy melody and a few chords to make an orchestral arrangement work. So he doesn't just set the Zep songs, but expands upon them, developing their melodies the way composers like Darius Milhaud or Ralph Vaughan Williams fleshed out folk tunes.
As a result, "When the Levee Breaks," which in the Zep version is all pounding drums and grinding guitars, actually has a sense of drama and melodic development, while "Going to California" is so rich with texture and harmonic detail that it's hard to believe Coleman could have extrapolated so much from so little. In fact, so much imagination has been lavished on those arrangements that they make the rather literal-minded setting of the title tune seem almost trite in comparison.
Still, if Coleman mining the music of Led Zeppelin for symphonic gems seems a stretch, Apocalyptica's seizure of Metallica songs borders on the insane. And yet, there's definitely a method behind the madness that produced the quartet's "Plays Metallica By Four Cellos" (Mercury 314 532 707).