Lawrence Johnson in Sun-Sentinel, 7 September 2001
These two very interesting South Florida Sun-Sentinel articles appeared here and here : we preserve them here only for archival purposes and urge Palers to visit them 'at source' while they're still available.
Procol Harum fans bewail perceived snub
One of the most interesting things about journalism is that you never know what kind of response any given article will elicit.
My recent Sunday feature [see below] about rock musicians turning to classical music ("Rockin' the Symphony," Aug. 26) didn't provoke an outcry from defenders of Paul McCartney, whose "classical" works I criticized. Nor from fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose Requiem I said was a solid, underrated piece of work.
Instead, the biggest reaction uncovered a little-known cultural artifact -- namely that the 1970s art-rock band Procol Harum continues to enjoy cultlike status, at least on the Internet, and its fans take serious umbrage if they think their favorite group is being overlooked.
The Sunday article provoked an immediate and passionate avalanche of e-mail and calls from fans of Procol Harum, after a posting on its Web site -- not because I said anything critical about the band, but merely because in a passing reference to 1970s art-rock bands, I failed to mention them.
But to the irked Procol Harum faithful, that was provocation enough. To quote the group's lyrics, "Although my eyes were open, they might just as well been closed."
"How on earth could you have overlooked PROCOL HARUM's influence and impact of utilizing classical and symphonic sound while writing your article?" asked Beverly Peyton. "It continually befuddles the thousands of fan-base minds how music-related commentaries such as yours manage to `skip' the PROCOL HARUM light fandango!"
"Are you merely a child, or can you hearken back to May of 1972 when Conquistador hit the charts?" demanded Pat Hickey of Asheville, N.C. "A classic recorded in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), the performance featured classic Rock Hall of Famer B.J. Wilson on drums and Gary Brooker, co-writer and pianist on the Summer of Love's (1967, if you need to do some research) Whiter Shade of Pale. Go back into your cocoon."
(Actually, I was just 12 in 1972 when Conquistador was released, but, though ensconced in a pre-adolescent cocoon, remember it nonetheless.)
There were more thoughtful responses, too, including one from Roland Clare in Bristol, England, and this from Geoff Welch in Hillburn, N.Y.: "The clear, shining example [of classically influenced bands] is Procol Harum, whose work includes not only the famous A Whiter Shade of Pale, but Homburg, A Salty Dog and the 1972 hit with orchestra, Conquistador. They produced a seamless, dramatic rock/classical flow (with great lyrics) that sounds better and better as time goes on. Please give them a serious listen, they are in a class by themselves."
For those younger than 35 or older than 60, in the early 1970s Procol Harum enjoyed fleeting commercial success with a string of symphonically conceived albums. As mentioned, the British group produced two major hits, Conquistador and A Whiter Shade of Pale, the latter based in part on two works by Bach. A Whiter Shade of Pale has been covered by everyone from Joe Cocker to the Canadian Brass; like Bach's music it has proven indestructible even with Sarah Brightman's recent fluffy, New Age rendering.
The best of the songs by Gary Brooker and Keith Reid, aided by Brooker's inventive keyboard work and haunting vocals, gave the band a distinct sound, but the group never was able to capitalize on its early commercial success. Procol Harum underwent numerous personnel changes (Robin Trower was, briefly, an early member), and continues to tour extensively in the UK, their exploits followed avidly by fans on its impressive state-of-the-art Web site (procolharum.com).
I'm not sure that there is any great significance to be gleaned from this -- apart from the fact that one of my editors vehemently believed otherwise and strongly insisted I write about it. Perhaps it's that in the age of instant electronic communication, a relatively small but well-organized group can quickly fill one's e-mail box with enough cyber-missives to suggest numbers and import far beyond reality. More broadly, in the age of the Internet, there are few distinctions between what truly enjoys mass popularity and what a relatively small group of passionate true believers can quickly accomplish with the press of a SEND button. In the wide-open democracy of the Internet, even those who continue to "skip the light fandango" can make their presence felt.
Rockin' the symphony
Henry Purcell dashed off bawdy tavern odes while creating opera with Dido and Aeneas. Haydn and Mozart incorporated trendy "Turkish" instruments into symphonies and concertos. The hurdy-gurdy rhythms of the Italian street vendor found voice in Verdi's middle-period operas. And in 1925 George Gershwin brought the bluesy elements of jazz to the symphonic concert hall with Rhapsody in Blue.
In short, popular musical forms have always had an impact on "serious" classical composition. Now, in the latest and most striking instance of populist cross-fertilization, rock musicians have been turning to classical in surprising numbers.
Elvis Costello's collaboration with Anne Sophie von Otter is only the most recent example. Yet much more fascinating than an opera singer's one-off slumming in pop songs are the cases where famous rockers are composing music in the classical realm.
Paul McCartney is the most famous of these, but works from others are in the pipeline. Pete Townshend has written an opera, Roger Waters is writing one about the French Revolution, and apparently it's not still rock 'n' roll to Billy Joel, who has forsaken pop for classical. (Though, like the tree that falls in the empty forest, if Joel turns classical and there is no one there to see or hear it, i.e., no concerts or recordings, how do we know it really happened?)
While jazz was quickly adopted by "respectable" composers such as Ravel and Shostakovich, the post-war explosion of rock 'n' roll served to open a chasm, musically and socially, between two antagonistic, at times warring, camps. The raucous youth-oriented music with its insistent rhythms, amplified electric guitars and driving percussion unleashed a rude vitality that was eagerly embraced by teenagers plagued by the eternal adolescent torments of social alienation, raging hormones and living with one's parents.
From the beginnings of rock in the mid-1950s, the divide gradually increased between the older and richer denizens of concert-hall music and the younger, often darker, working-class audiences of the rock milieu. The upheavals of the 1960s widened this musical demilitarized zone even more; the sweaty rock players and the young who supported them taunted the older music establishment as uptight grinds, who, in turn, looked down their noses at this undignified "jungle music."
But, like battling spouses with long-held resentments, there were always glimmerings that the two worlds needed each other more than either would admit. Almost from the beginning, classical elements were utilized by rock bands and their producers, whether it be Phil Spector's quasi-symphonic "wall of sound" in his 3-minute Ronettes epics or Chuck Berry's startlingly original riff on Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Roll Over, Beethoven.
Beatles most fluent
The Beatles applied the most innovative classical elements with the greatest fluency, and the sheer variety, melodic distinction and intellectual quirkiness of the Beatles albums from Revolver on proved most influential. The '70s saw an explosion of classically-influenced bands, from the pop-oriented Electric Light Orchestra to the synthesizer-rich philosophizing of Rick Wakeman and Yes, as well as the bloated pretensions of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Post-Beatles, the Moody Blues probably achieved the most consistent results, displaying remarkable deftness at combining rock and classical elements in their mystical albums.
Yet, if rock audiences have largely accepted the symphonic trappings of what used to be known as "art-rock" groups, classical audiences and critics have generally been more wary of rock artists who turned their hands to classical composition. And, in fairness, the fitful success of the results heard to date has done little to assuage such skepticism.
The most highly publicized rocker to try his hand at "serious" composition, McCartney, has now released his third classical effort, Working Classical (EMI).
The ex-Beatle's first venture was the lavishly publicized Liverpool Oratorio, written for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor and arranger Carl Davis. Even apart from the banal lyrics and corny autobiographical scenario (Liverpool Man is born, goes to school, gets married, has fight with wife, discovers she is pregnant, they reconcile and live happily ever after in a cozy Liverpool suburb), the numbing musical emptiness of the Liverpool Oratorio makes Ebony and Ivory seem like a profound meditation on race relations.
What Liverpool Oratorio presents is a pop-centered sensibility with Brobdingnagian classical resources forcibly grafted onto it. It's too much for the trivial ideas to support, and the music collapses of its own weight. John Lennon's old knock about Paul's music being too soft and bourgeois rings more true in this elephantine paean to middle-class respectability than in trifles such as Silly Love Songs.
Compare the treacly rendering of family life here to the piercing cry from the heart of Lennon's Mother or any cut on the Plastic Ono Band album. To be sure, Lennon's more tortured sensibility was not McCartney's, and one doesn't expect McCartney to ape his late bandmate's edgy, unremittingly honest self-examination. But surely there could be more intensity, human emotion and individual expression than is found in this barren work, which, for long stretches, sounds like third-rate film music. One would happily trade all 98 minutes of Liverpool Oratorio for one chorus of I Saw Her Standing There.
McCartney's next effort was Standing Stone, a tone poem for large orchestra released in 1997. This time, early Celtic Man arises from the muck to discover fire and love, and, in all probability, marry and live happily ever after in a cozy Liverpool suburb.
After the opening chromatic wind and string lines depicting Celtic Man's origins, we are soon visited by "Ah, Ah-ing" from a large mixed chorus, which sounds eerily like a kind of celestial porno soundtrack. Again, much of this 79-minute canvas seems like orchestral vamping waiting for an inspired idea or development that never arrives.
Improving with time
How is it that one half of the songwriting team responsible for some of the most innovative and audacious popular music of the 20th century can, in the classical realm, come up with such a monumental bore as Standing Stone? Perhaps it is because a pop-centered sensibility such as McCartney's can write a great 4-minute song or even a great rock album but is not enough to sustain the kind of sprawling musical frameworks that the artist has chosen for himself.
His third release, Working Classical, offers just three orchestral works, all between 10 and 12 minutes in length. McCartney's gift for the simple diatonic melody is more gratefully applied to these less grandiose works than the previous elephantine structures. A Leaf is firmly in the vein of English pastoralism, like Finzi or Delius minus the darker undercurrents. Spiral begins with a bald crib from Vaughan Williams' A Lark Ascending and offers more fluffy, inconsequential note-spinning.
The rest of Working Classical is made up of some McCartney post-Beatles songs performed in arrangements for string quartet by the Loma Mar Quartet. Oddly, his best songs come off worst, My Love sounding anachronistic and Maybe I'm Amazed lacking the edge and desperation of his earlier gritty vocals.
Grit is certainly not lacking in the two classical efforts to date from Joe Jackson. In 1997, the British rocker released Heaven and Hell, a song-cycle of sorts on the seven deadly sins. One can hardly get further removed from the middle-class respectability of Liverpool Oratorio than in this dark and brooding music. Unlike Sir Paul, Jackson had classical training and does his own arrangements. Yet even with the participation of classical artists such as Dawn Upshaw and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Heaven and Hell is really more straight-ahead rock 'n' roll than traditional song-cycle.
Jackson's world-weary vocals add edge and danger, and there is at least some bite and vitality here. There is also humor, most notably in Jackson's ode to '90s-style sloth in Passacaglia/ABud and a Slice, which boasts a neat bassoon solo by Judith LeClair. The Bridge is a lovely song, delivered most effectively by Jane Siberry, and the small string ensemble of the concluding Fugue2/Song of Daedalus is artfully deployed, the arrangement existing to serve the music rather than the other way around.
In the end, Heaven and Hell is more ambitious than wholly successful, but there is at least a rawness and tension lacking in McCartney's cotton-candy classical.
Jackson gets it
Jackson has taken a big step forward with his Symphony No. 1, on the Sony label. Like Liverpool Oratorio, Jackson's symphony traces the life cycle, shaded with strongly autobiographical resonance. First Movement reflects childhood, beginning with mysterious percussion shimmerings and timpani rolls. Soon, a soaring alto sax solo introduces an extended California cool-jazz atmosphere which, amid irregular percussion beats, soon segues into an uptempo section. "Energetic and arrogant" youth is reached in Fast Movement, with satiric nose-pulls at the scherzo from Beethoven's Eroica Symphony providing the thematic material.
The reflective Slow Movement depicts middle life and, as Jackson says, "the D's: Disillusion, depression, divorce, disease, death." The melancholy aspect is certainly conveyed, and the spare ambivalence of this music pays more dividends than McCartney's soupy grandiosity. Yet there is a hopeful quality and sense of solace to the long trumpet solo that is the centerpiece of the movement -- terrifically played by Terence Blanchard -- and here Jackson comes closest to achieving a synthesis of symphonic thought through populist instrumentation.
If there was a whiff of the rock star's trendy fatalism to Heaven and Hell, the more varied and even sunny optimism of Jackson's Symphony No. 1 shows a more mature balancing of musical expression and means.
A personal endeavor
Out of the swirl of all the accompanying publicity and hype at the premiere 17 years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Requiem now seems like the most convincing classical effort to come from a rock-oriented populist composer to date, a moving, melodic and greatly underrated work. Lloyd Webber's Mass is straightforwardly traditional in style, yet offers a graceful melding of rock and classical influences. There is much to impress one listening with open ears to the Requiem recording, conducted with fire and sensitivity by Lorin Maazel (EMI).
Inspired by the death of his father, a composer and organist, and by a horrific newspaper story about Cambodian war atrocities on children, Lloyd Webber's "most personal" composition is predominantly somber and dark-hued. The Requiem makes its dramatic effects with a sure hand and in no way plays to the Broadway gallery.
Sarah Brightman's sweet yet tremulous high soprano adds a not inapt vulnerability to the "Recordare," a plea for heavenly mercy, and Placido Domingo sings magnificently, heroic yet sensitive in the "Ingemisco." The militarist swagger of the men's chorus at "Confutatis maledictus" is hardly the work of a Broadway hack; in the years since it was written -- post-Bosnia and post-Yugoslavia -- the indictment of war and the regret for its innocent human victims have, sadly, only increased in power and relevance.
Under Domingo's soaring solo line, the lively rhythmic melody of the "Hosanna" builds into a joyous choral fugue with increasing organ sonority adding excitement until it explodes in unbridled exuberance. It then seems like the most natural thing in the world when a rock-flavored piano, electric guitar and drums steal into the textures, amid leaping woodwind lines. There is a kind of unselfconscious artlessness here, and the energy released by the rock instrumentation, orchestral brass and choruses conveys all the vitality of rock 'n' roll while deploying large classical forces with style and an easy assurance.
In the celebrated "Pie Jesu" that follows, the simple, indelible tune is sung by the soprano, followed by the pure bell-like tones of treble Paul Miles-Kingston, solo, then both singers in a duet. With sensitive scoring of choral and organ counterpoint, the music delivers an island of hope amid the bleak tone of much of the rest of the Requiem, and the sense of elevated calm and repose achieved is quite extraordinary.
If the wild variability of the music so far served up makes it an open question whether rock composers will be able to write great, or even good, works that will prove of lasting value in the concert hall, musical history, as always, proves illustrative. The Turkish instrumentation of Haydn's Military Symphony that surprised and jarred 18th century audiences sounds positively quaint 200 years later. Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue shed its briefly controversial status to become so popular and recognized as to be used for airline commercials.
So, too, the ineradicable influence of rock 'n' roll will continue to find its way into concert-hall works -- whether it be from younger composers in the classical tradition who grew up with rock 'n' roll, such as Michael Daugherty, Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke, or from rock musicians stretching their popular styles to embrace opera and orchestral music.
Whatever the source, like Chuck Berry's Beethovenian ode, it's a sure bet that after many present-day skeptics have long since rolled over, symphony orchestras will be regularly playing classical works that found fresh inspiration and renewed vigor by "digging in the rhythms and blues."
Lawrence A. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4708.