(From the Telegraph, London daily, 27 April 2004.)
Kings of Crossover
by Serena Davies
Going through a classical
phase in the early '90s, Elvis Costello fell in love with the Brodsky Quartet,
self-proclaimed mavericks who favour Issey Miyake outfits over the stiffer
black-tie garb with which we normally associate classical musicians.
Determined to work with the Brodskys, Costello, a self-taught musician, learnt how to read and write music. The result was The Juliet Letters, a set of "chamber pop" songs inspired by the letters written by an eccentric academic who had taken it upon himself to reply to those addressed to Juliet - of Romeo and Juliet - and sent to Verona. The cycle met with considerable success, it became Costello's highest-selling commercial record at the time.
In the most prestigious of pop/ classical crossovers, Paul McCartney was invited in 1991 by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to compose an oratorio celebrating its 150th anniversary. Carl Davis conducted, soloists included Kiri Te Kanawa, and it premiered at Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral to a five-minute standing ovation. Another self-taught musician, Macca had to get Davis to help with the orchestration, and the result, Liverpool Oratorio, a 90-minute meditation on the life of a Liverpudlian named Shanty, was not to everyone's taste. Classical music pundits greeted it with derision.
Steve Hackett turned to Evelyn Glennie, the world's only superstar percussionist, to give him classical credibility for a composition they performed together at 2002's percussion and drumming festival at the Royal Festival Hall. The City in the Sea was described by one reviewer as "improvised belligerence and mournful doodling", and involved wailing sounds and an organ impression coming from Hackett's guitar, while Glennie played various homemade instruments, a drum kit and an air raid siren. His other classical offering is the more melodic A Midsummer Night's Dream, a 1997 recording of instrumental music in the English pastoral tradition. A coherent if un-ambitious piece of writing, it yet suggests the gulf between pop and classical is bridgeable.
Solo success has persistently eluded Tony Banks, sometime Genesis keyboardist, and Seven looks unlikely to rock that boat. It was released in February on Naxos, a label usually considered a model of good, classical taste, and consists of seven suites, performed by the London Philharmonic. Banks, like McCartney, discovered he did not actually know how to write for an orchestra, so he had to get someone else to orchestrate, which lays his work open to instant criticism from the purists and accounts for something of its bland arrangement. Seven is at best serviceable film music.
Killing Joke lead singer Jaz Coleman is a workaholic polymath responsible for a positive ecstasy of classical/pop hybrid called Riders on the Storm: The Doors Concerto, an arrangement of Doors music for symphony orchestra recorded in 2000 with violinist Nigel Kennedy performing (on his violin) as the voice of Jim Morrison. Reasonably effective, it came as Coleman's solo follow-up to a similar treatment he'd given songs by the Who and the Stones. Despite one reviewer's describing Coleman as "our new Mahler", it is likely that history will reflect on his frequent collaborations with Sarah Brightman before recording such an effusive judgement on his classical prowess in general, although there's hope yet for a man who bought his first record, Russian Orchestral Masterpieces, at the age of six.