Classical Rock is a project which aims to combine the best hits from classical music with the best of classic rock; the intention is to avoid the 'elevator music' tag of much orchestral rock arrangements. The project has been conceived of by John Axelrod (aka MaestroX) with arranger Christophe Patrix (aka CPRX). Axelrod is strikingly positioned to combine the two genres, not only is he the Music Director of the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire but prior to this he was A&R director for BMG/RCA Records and Atlantic Records where he was involved with such artists as the Smashing Pumpkins, Marc Cohen and Tori Amos.
Axelrod first presented a Classical Rock type programme at the Lucerne Festival to 4000 people in a hockey arena with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and the lead singer of Krokus, Marc Storace. The project has now released a CD. The content mixes both classical music and rock music in good arrangements, with an interesting follow through between the items. So that a very upbeat performance of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries leads into Black Sabbath's Iron Man. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody (performed the the choir Accentus and baritone Nmon Ford) leads into a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody. The exoticism of Rimsky Korsakov's Sheherezade is paired with Led Zeppelin's Kashmir. And, inevitably, there is Stairway to Heaven (a piece I once conceived of using as the basis for a mass setting!), sung by Patsy Blackstone and paired with the sunrise from Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra. An eclectic and interesting mix, but it does work. What the performance of Bohemian Rhapsody demonstrates is what remarkable vocal range and talent Freddie Mercury must have had.
I was lucky enough to be able to conduct an email interview with John Axelrod to find out more about the project.
Though Classical Rock may appeal more to audiences familiar with rock music than classical, Axelrod hopes that the audiences will hear the music in a new way and appreciate it enough to come to more orchestra concerts. He thinks that the real mission for both Classical Rock and many other musicians is in developing audiences for classical music. He points out that without developing audiences for the classical repertoire, we lose the raison d'etre for the orchestra, and much of classic rock would have lost its most inspired influence.
Axelrod agrees that some people will consider the project at best a novelty and at worst classical crossover. But for him the juxtaposition of the classical repertoire and classic rock hits programmatically connected would make a unique and exciting experience, taking the listener on a magical mystery tour. Axelrod affirms that there is no dumbing down, that they are not interested in muzak. The orchestral arrangements of the classic rock used are unique and musical and they keep the sonic and artistic levels consistent between the genres.
Axelrod has performed the Classical Rock program in Lucerne, Switzerland and the USA and recorded it in Prague. And in each case the orchestra has found it a refreshing experience. Where he used rock singers in the arrangements Axelrod has found that every time he has asked if they would like to sing Stairway to Heaven with an orchestra, the answer was an immediate yes. He points out that there is a strong tradition of rock singers using orchestra as backing, citing Sting, Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, and of course artists like Frank Zappa wrote music for symphony orchestra.
With his knowledge of both classical music and rock, Axelrod is eloquent on the way the history of rock intertwines with that of the symphonic repertoire, citing the way rock arrangements over the years have taken inspiration from classical music. This traffic is not all one way of course, because classical musicians can love rock music too.
When I asked about the possibility of culture shock between the two worlds, he said that there wasn't any. That a choir like Accentus had loved singing on Bohemian Rhapsody, as had the baritone Nmon Ford. Also, of course, many orchestra play a wide variety of genres; the orchestra in Prague which recorded Classical Rock performs film music, sound tracks and pop music as well as the standard classical and operatic repertoire.
But to Axelrod culture shock can be a good thing too, opening up horizons and changing perspectives. Though he admits that there will always be those who will find such new ways of doing things too much of a shock, the trick is to find a balance between tradition and modernism.
For Axelrod an important point is that the repertoire of Classical Rock keys into memory and nostalgia in a way which he believes will help build new audiences; after all, classic rock tracks are part of most people's upbringing.
Classical Rock is an interesting project which seems to rise above the generally cynical world of muzak and crossover. If it can generate a new audience all well and good, though personally I am something of a cynic. But if it doesn't, what the hell; I have to say that there are some damn good tunes on the disc, so we can just sit back and enjoy them.