In Classical Guise, Rock Music Finds Symphonic Haven
By John Fleming
It began with Led Zeppelin. In 1995, Brent Havens put the Virginia Symphony Orchestra together with the music of Led Zeppelin, the first time he paired classic rock and classical music. “We knew we were onto something when it sold out in one day,” says Havens, an arranger and conductor who lives in Virginia.
And thus was born the cottage industry of Windborne Music, which Havens founded. The project now has 10 rock shows for which he writes the orchestra arrangements and conducts. Along with Zeppelin there are shows with music of the Eagles, Pink Floyd, Queen, The Who, U2, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and the newest one, Journey.
These programs have become popular with regional orchestras, which basically serve as backup bands to Windborne rock and pop musicians, of whom there are more than 40 on the company’s roster, plus Havens and three other conductors. The shows come with rock concert lighting and sound, including the amplified orchestra.
In the next two months or so, Windborne has collaborations with the Oregon Symphony (Pink Floyd, Sept. 19), the Edmonton Symphony (Pink Floyd, Sept. 29-Oct. 1), the Florida Orchestra (Led Zeppelin, Oct. 16), the San Antonio Symphony (Queen on Oct. 23, Led Zeppelin on Oct. 24), the Nashville Symphony (U2, Nov. 10), and the Louisville Orchestra (Led Zeppelin, Nov. 14).
“Since about 2003, our business has exploded,” Havens says. “This past June alone, we had 18 performances.”
The Nashville Symphony is doing two Windborne shows this season, a single performance of U2 music in November and three concerts of Eagles music on its pops series in February. Previous shows of Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin attracted robust attendance. “I’d say that we’ve done, minimally, 95 percent of capacity” at 1,844-seat Schermerhorn Symphony Center, says Laurence Tucker, vice president of artistic administration. “It’s a new audience for the orchestra, and I would hope they will cross over and become pops subscribers or come to other shows as single ticket buyers.”
Windborne has been expanding beyond North America, most recently in August in three performances with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in Kuala Lumpur. “It was our third time with them,” Havens says. “This year we did Queen. Last year it was Zeppelin, and the year before that it was Michael Jackson. Huge. All the shows were sold out, nine sold out shows total.”
There’s nothing new about merging rock and classical music. In the 1960s and ’70s, progressive rockers like Procul Harum, Yes, the Moody Blues, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and others played with symphony orchestras. And rock groups have often indulged in sweeping strings, from the “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles to the match between Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony on the album S&M. The Berlin Philharmonic put out an album with the Scorpions, a German rock band. Recently, Pete Townshend’s rock opera for The Who, Quadrophenia, was released with new orchestrations on Deutsche Grammophon as Classic Quadrophenia and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a chorus, and soloists.
Havens, who is preparing an Elton John show for next season, follows a few criteria in choosing which rock groups get the symphonic treatment. “Obviously, their catalog has to be big enough to support a two-hour show,” he says. “And their U.S. sales have to be big enough to warrant me doing them, and that is more than 30 million in U.S. sales. There has to be enough of a fan base for us to fill a 2,000-seat, 3,000-seat venue.”
And then there’s the issue of whether a band’s music fits with a symphony orchestra. “There are some groups I’m just not going to do because I don’t think the marriage is really going to be something that makes me happy,” Havens says. “I have to be comfortable that I can do a great job with the charts and make them interesting not just for the orchestra but for the audience.”
Though the Led Zeppelin show was Havens’ initial effort, it is still one of the most successful. He was drawn to the group because one of its greatest hits, “Kashmir,” featured strings and brass. He has arrangements for about 30 Zeppelin songs, and a concert will typically feature about 18 of them, always including favorites like “Black Dog,” “All of My Love,” and “Stairway to Heaven.”
Havens basically transcribes the rock band parts, because that’s what fans want to hear. “It’s astounding how well people know Led Zeppelin’s music,” he says. “They know it lick for lick on the guitar, and I try to keep it close to the original.” So it’s important to be convincing in replicating the famous solos, such as those by Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, played in Windborne shows by veteran studio musician George Cintron. Randy Jackson (lead singer of the band Zebra) covers Zeppelin singer Robert Plant.
The orchestra parts, on the other hand, allow for some creativity by Havens. “The charts can’t just be window dressing,” he says. “They have to be an integral part of the show. I think of them (the orchestra) as another member of the band. I try to think horizontally. I try to write interesting lines for the orchestra to play, not just chords. For a lot of pop shows you get a lot of chords, and sometimes it does call for that. But the majority of the time I try to think horizontally and make the music go somewhere.’’
For the Rolling Stones show, Havens found it a challenge to orchestrate such songs as “Satisfaction,” “Paint It Black,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” and “Angie.” “Most of the Stones tunes were only four chords,” he says. “What do you do with four chords for five minutes? So I decided I would have the orchestra playing opposite what everybody else was playing. I had multiple lines of counterpoint in the orchestra running against what the band was playing.”
The Nashville Symphony players enjoy the Windborne shows, according to artistic administrator Tucker, and he appreciates Havens’ efficient, cost-effective approach. “Brent can do it with one rehearsal of about 85 minutes,” Tucker says. “His guys are thoroughly rehearsed, the charts are great, written with the orchestra in mind, and the sound is good and not too loud onstage. And the musicians love playing for full halls.”
Windborne is not the only company in the rock symphony market. Jeans ’n Classics, based in Ontario, offers about 20 shows to orchestras, including five of Beatles music. “Some of our competitors are the groups themselves — classic rock groups with their own orchestra arrangements,” Havens says. “Three Dog Night, Kansas, the Moody Blues — they’re probably our main competition.”
John Fleming writes for Opera News, Musical America, Symphony magazine and other publications.Date posted: September 17, 2015