The pop, rock, classic shuffle Music: Rockers turn to 'serious' composing as classical musicians and symphony orchestras embrace the likes of Led Zeppelin.


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).

Formed by four Finnish cellists with a serious jones for thrash metal, Apocalyptica expands on territory opened by the Kronos String Quartet, which set the classical world on its ear by including a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" in its chamber recital. But there's more to Apocalyptica than the novelty value of hearing "Creeping Death" played by cellos.

Fact is, these four understand Metallica's music and their instruments equally well, and as such do an impressive job of translating the amplified fury of heavy metal to their totally acoustic instruments. From the sawing insistence of "Enter Sandman" to the churning, contrapuntal pulse of "Harvester of Sorrow," Apocalyptica turn Metallica's catalog into a convincing

semblance of 20th century chamber music.

Part of the trick in making pop music safe for classical musicians lies in finding ways to create scores from what was either improvised or played by ear. Apocalyptica's Eicca Toppinen did that by transcribing and re-arranging what he heard in Metallica records, while pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet's "Conversations with Bill Evans" (London 455 512) takes a similar, if less radical, approach to the work of jazzman Evans.

In this case, Thibaudet relies on transcriptions of Evans' work, treating them with roughly the same reverence he'd devote to a Chopin etude or Listz fantasie. There's no improvisation involved, but that doesn't keep Thibaudet from personalizing the pieces. For one thing, he takes a fluid, romanticized approach to time, swapping the swing-based regularity of Evans' cadences for looser, more elasticized phrasing.

But he also has better technique than Evans and is able to create a much wider range of pianistic effects. His "Waltz for Debby" is sad and sweet in ways Evans could only hint at, while the reading he gives "Peace Piece" brings much deeper shadings and an almost Ravelian sense of color to the piece.

In fairness, it should be noted that Evans, like most pop musicians, had different intentions from the ones Thibaudet brings to these "Conversations." Much the same could also be said for Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine tango composer whose work has become all the rage in classical corners.

Although Piazzolla was a serious composer who, like Aaron Copland and Pierre Boulez, studied with Nadia Boulanger at the Paris Conservatory, he was also a performer, and part of what made his recordings so memorable was the fire and daring he brought to his music. Unfortunately, that's not always evident in the chamber-style recordings currently being made.

Yo-Yo Ma comes very close to capturing that spirit in his Piazzolla tribute, "The Soul of the Tango" (Sony Classical 63122). While he doesn't imitate Piazzolla's recordings quite as closely as violinist Gidon Kremer does on the earnest "Astor Piazzolla: El Tango" (Nonesuch 79462), he does get a bit closer to the rhapsodic heart of the music.

It helps that Ma's version of "Tango Remembrances" is an actual duet with Piazzolla (though, through the magic of overdubbing, the two parts were recorded 10 years apart). But as much as Ma appreciates the logic and balance that went into Piazzolla pieces like "Fugata," he also grasps the amount of ego the music demands and puts enough of himself into the music to make this feel as immediate as a pop recording.

Pub Date: 12/01/97

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad