Is It A Good Idea For Rock Bands To Team Up With Orchestras?

Deep Purple (music group)ArtArts and CultureRock and Roll (genre)Bushnell Center for the Performing ArtsMetallica (music group)Hartford Symphony Orchestra

Deep Purple
featuring members of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, with Ernie and the Automatics opening. $53 to $123 adv., July 8, The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford, (860) 987-5900, bushnell.org.

Sept. 24 marks an important anniversary for Deep Purple. On that date in 1969, the influential, then-young hard-rock band teamed with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for a performance at Royal Albert Hall in London — a vital step in their artistic maturation. The band and the orchestra tackled an original three-part concerto composed by the group plus Deep Purple’s “Wring That Neck” and “Child in Time,” leading to an unusual merging of musical worlds. The resulting collaboration was swiftly released on record as Concerto for Group and Orchestra, resting in the back of Deep Purple’s discog to remind you that their highfalutin ambitions predate muddy proto-heavy metal numbers like “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star.”

Deep Purple weren’t the first to do the rockers-with-orchestra thing (the Moody Blues used the London Festival Orchestra for 1967’s Days of Future Passed), but Concerto was a significant and early example of an experiment several bands tested. In a similar vein, there’s Metallica’s S&M (1999), Scorpions’ Moment of Glory (2000), KISS’ Symphony: Alive IV (2003), Dream Theater’s Score (2006), and Mono’s Holy Ground: NYC Live With The Wordless Music Orchestra (2010). Deep Purple even went back to the well with a 1999 live album, as did the Moody Blues with a 1993 live album.

While this extravagant practice hasn’t been milked to death, the angle’s been utilized by a broad enough roster of bands to carve its own niche. This interest in the approach raises some intriguing questions about the power of rock songs as-is versus their souped-up re-takes. Just how useful are these band/orchestra collaborations on an artistic level? What makes some work and others not? Novelty aside, is “Rock and Roll All Nite” really worth experiencing with strings, brass and other orchestral trimmings?

These questions are pertinent to discussing Deep Purple’s upcoming date at The Bushnell, where they’ll be backed by members of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Details are currently scarce about the event — HSO players typically don’t find out what they’re playing at these things until a rehearsal the day of the show — but a page on The Bushnell’s site notes that “fans can expect to hear the band’s trail-blazing iconic hits.” Curiously, there’s no mention of Concerto and whether any of it will be performed.

HSO violinist Michael Pollard, who is scheduled to perform in the Deep Purple show, is the ideal person to bounce off the aforementioned questions. Though the 59-year-old’s been with the HSO since 1975 and makes his living largely playing classical music, he’s also performed music by the Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Brian Wilson. His listening tastes — which include an affinity for Frank Zappa, Tom Waits, Radiohead and the Black Keys — are rock-oriented enough to give him a good sense of perspective on these rock/orchestra collabs.

“Honestly, a lot of this stuff has evolved from trying to get gigs,” he says of these events. “In other words, an orchestra may be trying to reach out to a broader audience. It also provides some different type of exposure for the bands. There are these unusual combinations [of sounds]. [It’s] not that rock and roll and an orchestra can’t go together; if it’s specifically conceived that way — it may work. A lot of times, it’s like a fluff overlay of the original stuff. It muddies the water, so to speak.” As he later affirms, “The best reason [to add orchestral instrumentation] is because it really brings something to the music.”

Pollard says that in the case of those Zeppelin songs, the transition is worthwhile. On the other hand, he isn’t disinterested in hearing KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” done orchestral-style but it’s not something at the top of his list either. “I realize that [for] a lot of people, the opportunity to play with strings is exciting ‘cause it’s a different sound for them, too,” he says. “A lot of times, people think because there’s strings in something — I don’t necessarily mean the band but maybe the audience — it gives [the music] a legitimacy that maybe it wouldn’t have.”

This is a valuable point. Artists maintain a desire to legitimize rock music when slipped into this framework, whether this wish is made explicit or not. For bands, it empowers audiences, too: They get the surge of experiencing a world of music that’s foreign to most rock audiences. Adding those new instruments creates a novelty and makes the music feel more worthy of exalting.

Certain bands are worthy of this attention, like Mono and Dream Theater, who are already out to make oversized epics. Metallica do a decent job of blending into their new surroundings, as their music has always strived to be big and mythological, but on tracks like “Fuel,” orchestral accoutrements mean sacrificing speed and energy, turning the improvements into “fluff overlay.”

Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” is another needless facelift; that song’s too dopey to ever feel grand. Strangely, KISS’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” comes across pretty well, with its houseparty feel evolving into a tribute to a jet-setter’s high-end life. In sum, no rock band has yet to out-and-out bomb when adding an orchestra, but the worthiness of all this work has to be evaluated on a track-by-track basis.

The varying effectiveness of Deep Purple in this environment proves that rule. The power of “Child in Time” and “Wring That Neck,” the first Deep Purple tracks to be revamped, translate magnificently, working alongside the orchestral instrumentation to sound like unruly jazz spat from the Heavens.

Then again, the simplicity and griminess of “Highway Star” and “Smoke on the Water” don’t need the augmentation. So much of their value comes from their naïve charm and accessibility; that uncomplicated bluesy riff of “Smoke” proves how potent simplicity can be. Sometimes, just being rock and roll is good enough.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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