Rock and Rachmanioff

Back in January The Artful Manager linked to Peter Sellar’s speech before the American Symphony Orchestra League (text found here.) One of the comments he made was that Beethoven didn’t write polite music.

On the way into work the next day I heard an ad that said something to the effect of “this moment of calm is brought to you by…” and named the local symphony while playing some sedate music. I wryly thought to myself that they were taking the wrong approach and should be advertising that they performed impolite music by the bad boys of their day.

I almost immediately started wondering how symphonies defined what music they played. Is it music that has stood the test of time? If so, why don’t they try to adapt enduring music by groups like Led Zeppelin and the Doors. Some of the pieces might might not be appropriate, but “Kashmir” had orchestral backing and I think a symphony could do something interesting with “Riders on the Storm.” Some effort in arranging the music for a symphony might create the basis of an interesting program that might attract some new audiences. These artists were certainly not writing polite music and were bad boys of their day.

About two weeks later at the APAP convention I actually came across a group in a showcase that had arranged many classic rock tunes for chamber instruments. I have subsequently learned that the London Symphony Orchestra has performed an orchestral arrangement of “Kashmir” and The Who’s rock opera Tommy, which I had forgotten.

I suspect that symphonies define the music they play as falling within a certain aesthetic that bears similar elements to works by predecessors like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc. This seems like a very limiting approach. Admittedly, there is some logic to this. Nora Jones is defined as a jazz artist based on similarities in song choice and vocal execution to Bille Holiday and Nina Simone.

I looked around at the websites of about 15 symphonies, both large and small, and saw that some were performing works by composers who are still very much alive and haven’t needed to stand any tests of time. The only person I knew enough about to call a “bad boy” was John Cage.

I don’t want to get into a whole elitism debate regarding orchestral music so I will simply say I can see why the music of Led Zeppelin, The Doors and The Who, while standing the test of time, might not be considered appropriate for the main season. So I started looking at the Pops seasons for each of the 15 groups I mentioned before. By and large, most of the pops programming seemed to consist of the orchestras performing with popular artists like Manhattan Transfer, The Chieftans and Marvin Hamlisch. Old standbys like Gershwin tunes and the 1812 Overture appeared in Pops seasons, too.

I don’t know if I was looking in the wrong places or if performing arrangements of these songs represents a trend that has passed, but there seems to be a missed opportunity by not performing more contemporary but enduring works, even if only in a Pops season. If video game themes and cell phone rings can be the subject of symphony performances, why not these works? There is some real power, majesty and craftsmanship in these songs (or at least opportunities to use orchestra instruments to infuse these things into them.)

One of the strengths musicians of any stripe have is the ability to choose from a wide variety of songs. In theatre and dance, unless you are doing a series of short plays or short dance pieces, you are usually tied to performing a show linearly as written. People go to the symphony expecting they will hear selections from different artists in programs with titles like “A Foreign Affair” and “Glances of Love”. I will be the first to admit that I have no idea how the music integrates with these titles. From my vantage, it appears as if some sort of randomization computer program is used to pick the titles.

My point is symphonies have a ready made format and an audience that probably only knows slightly more about the logic process that places these songs together on the same night. If someone advertised a program titled “Bach You Tonight” that featured Bach and “Stairway to Heaven” at the right price, people who had never attended a concert might be intrigued enough to attend. (I certainly would because I am having a hard time imagining them working together. Who knows.)

I am not going to suggest that people will come for the Zeppelin and be entranced enough to return for the “Strictly Strauss.” It may be that the new attendees never become comfortable with anything more than the annual “Rock N’ Rachmaninoff” series. (Yes, I am having fun making up these names. I promise to stop before something really goofy like Haydn and Halen). These type of programs would also need to be part of a larger effort to attract and welcome new people, to be sure.

Folks will say if I really understood how symphonies operate, I wouldn’t make such ludicrous suggestions. Yeah, admittedly this may all be akin to the suggestions on our surveys that I present Christina Aguilera in my little theatre. From my perspective it can’t be too far afield from what Pops programs already do. Even if I am off base, perhaps all this will inspire someone with the practical knowledge to make something similar happen.

The biggest problems I anticipate are 1) Some drunk guy standing up and yelling, “Play Freebird!” and 2) Existing patrons feeling that it is dumbing down the program to include it in the main season. Good monitoring at the bar will solve the first problem. The second problem–well even as unexperienced as I am with classical music, I know that it will take a lot of skill to arrange some of this music so it sounds awesome at a performance. Dumb ain’t gonna cut it.

While I am talking a lot about classic rock, I don’t want anyone to get their minds stuck on that. There is plenty of other enduring material to explore for rearranging like some of the works of Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, etc.

Not everything deserves to be arranged to be interpreted by a symphony. It should be more about showing off the symphony’s prowess than playing something just because it is easily recognizable. Yet something recognizable can also make it easier for a person with a low level of experience to appreciate the skill with which a piece is rendered.

Many people recognize the “Blue Danube Waltz” but might not be able to discern whether it is played well. On the other hand, an existing familiarity with “Gallows Pole” (which has absolutely endured centuries) provides a reference point from which to judge a symphony’s rendition.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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