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Rock, pops- meant for the stage?

July 18th, 2007

Rock, pops
meant for
the stage?

By Josh Eiserike
jeiserike@potomacnews.com

I’d like to offer a prediction that will no doubt offend some people:

In the next 10 years the Prince William Symphony Orchestra will play a concert, accompanying one of the better local rock bands, say, Madison Apart or Kick in the Pants.

Sounds crazy, right?

It’s going to happen — and if not in Prince William County, it’ll be another community orchestra and another local band in another part of the country.

That’s where we’re headed.

Last Saturday I headed up to Columbia, Md., to catch The Decemberists play with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Unless you camp out on pitchforkmedia.com or watch “The Colbert Report” on a regular basis, you’re probably scratching your head. Who?

The Decemberists — a Portland, Ore., rock band that favors a Belle and Sebastianesque storytelling approach with a They Might Be Giants sense of humor. Or, as Stephen Colbert said, “hyper-literate prog rock.”

The rock/symphony mash-up is nothing new. Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Collective Soul and the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra. Ben Folds and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Cypress Hill and — well, that was on “The Simpsons.”

But do the math, in terms of popularity: Deep Purple > Metallica > Collective Soul > Ben Folds > The Decemberists.

That’s also more or less in chronological order, and this trend isn’t going away anytime soon.

“Most orchestras have got to do something to lower the age of their audience, or they’re going to be in big trouble in a few years,” Pollstar editor in chief Gary Bongiovanni told Brian Wise of the New York Times last month. “They’re trying to broaden their appeal. You can’t just keep booking the same thing for 20 years.”

It works both ways.

I’ve seen Folds, my favorite recording artist, 15 times, twice with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As much as I love his skills as a pianist, it’s nice to change things up and get a totally different concert experience.

The same was true for The Decemberists. I saw them put on a near-perfect concert in Boston in April, transforming me from a casual listener to a fan.

From the opening notes of “The Crane Wife 1” on Saturday, as the orchestra crescendoed behind the multi-instrumental band, I knew this was something different, something special.

They played tracks from all of their albums, including the full 19-minute EP song “The Tain.” Sometimes it worked, other times it sounded like the orchestra was simply augmenting the band’s sound, accenting the song, not creating something simultaneously new and familiar.

The closer, with the orchestra, “I Was Meant For The Stage” was absolutely stunning — the perfect blend of Colin Meloy’s wistful lyrics and the emotional tugs from the symphony.

But, would I have gone to see the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra without a headlining rock band?

Unless the evening was billed as “An Evening of John Williams Music” or “An Evening of Josh’s Favorite Video Game Music,” probably not.

That’s the problem.

“But incorporating geek-chic indie rock might not be enough to ensure a successful future for the pops,” writes Brian Wise, of the New York Times. “There are worries that a brief introduction to orchestral accompaniment won’t transform rock fans into pops or symphony patrons, and that older pops fans will recoil at a sudden infusion of rock.”

For the Prince William Symphony Orchestra, attendance hasn’t really been a problem—but they’d still love to attract younger listeners.

So would they perform with a rock band?

“I don’t see why not,” said Claire Sutherland, director of marketing for the Prince William Symphony Orchestra. “Symphony orchestras are always trying to get the younger audiences, as well as diversified audiences.”

Which might explain Kanye West’s superb “Late Orchestration.”

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072.

2 comments to “Rock, pops- meant for the stage?”

  1. Hey Josh, I play trumpet for the Pietasters. James Brown – Good, Bob Marley – Bad, Pie and PWSO – ? If they supply the beer, we are up for the challenge.


  2. Awesome. I will certainly pass that along!!!