Classical Crossover – Part the First

More and more these days, commercialized pop music is attracting artists which often posses something different from the norm. No, not gender neutral hair, eyeliner on guys or meat themed attire, but performers with graduate degrees in music. These classically trained musicians, many of whom have spent tens of thousands of dollars for their education, have begun to shed the traditional route of finding employment in “heritage ensembles” (as I have recently heard Orchestras called) or academic posts and attempt to make an impact in the world of four chord harmonies, simple melodies and blatant stealing sampling.

This initial installment of a four-part series will serve as an introduction to a few established crossover groups, with the remaining entries each dedicated to one ensemble which has carved out a unique musical mission involving dissimilar styles of music or specialized repertoire selections.

While there are some individual classical artists that make crossover albums, this series will instead focus on ensembles whose main function is living in a mixed musical environment and not one night stands with the pop industry (creating a slightly different take on “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”) But before we embark on this journey, we must first define a what classical crossover ensemble is. Simply put, it is when classically trained musicians perform music which is outside of the realm of western art music, and not a core part of their training. This encompasses everything from covering songs by bands, video game music and film music to arrangements of patriotic and folk music.

Let’s begin by looking at three groups that represent different levels of wading in the waters of Pop music.

Apocalyptica
Water level: Up to their ears in the Rock world.

I was first introduced to the music of Apocalyptica over ten years ago when listening to “The Legendary Rock 100.5 the KATT.” The KATT would feature all Metallica sets and the introduction every time, oddly enough, was a cover of a Metallica song performed by the Finnish ensemble Apocalyptica. They had produced an album titled Apocalyptica Plays Metallica and the producers for whatever reason had decided that it was a great, gritty, rough intro to the rock group. They may have been on to something. When comparing the two, there seems to be a different kind of energy from the four cellists of Apocalyptica that even Metallica doesn’t capture (also, if Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield or any other Metallica member reads this, please don’t sue me for embedding your music here, I mean, you have enough money, right?)

Apocalyptica has gone on to not only embrace the bright lights, flashy clothing and staging of a rock show, but even manage to fuse a bit of classical music with death metal licks as seen in their live video performance of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. I challenge you to try and not get whiplash from banging your head to this.

The Knights
Water level: Knee deep in Pop music, balancing the old and new.

The accidental creation of Colin and Eric Jacobsen, The Knights are a New York City based ensemble which developed out of late night reading sessions with friends. Their repertoire spans from Bach and Handel to Hendrix and working with Yo-Yo Ma. They were recently featured on a PBS special which is available on their website. The ensemble doesn’t just performa a wide span of music, they also look for interesting venues. One past notable performance of Copland’s Appalachian Spring occurred at a state fair in Minnesota, among the animals and other farm implements.

The Boston Pops
Water Level: Waist high.

The Traditionalists, the Boston Pops are not often thought of as classical crossover ensemble. This is actually quite odd since, even their name states what they do, popular music. Since their founding in 1885, the Pops have been the alter ego of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. While not all players perform in both ensembles, there is a good amount of cross over. Their repertoire could be considered more conservative than the previous two ensembles discussed, but the intent is the same; performing the music that people enjoy casually by a group of professionally trained classical musicians. For the Pops, this means collaborations with chart toping artists, performing movie music, patriotic tunes and arrangements of other music including big band, 60’s rock and light jazz. Many of these arrangements are featured at their marquee event, the July 4th celebration which is televised each year across the United States. The audiences always seem to be into it too, swaying along to the music. In keeping with arrangements, the venerable Arthur Fiedler leads the Pops in an arrangement of Eleanor Rigby in the second clip below.

While many orchestras have pops programing, it’s safe to say that no one is more well known for it, or does it quite like Boston.

In part two of this series, we’ll take a look at an Arizona based ensemble leading a grass roots campaign to bring live performing music to audiences. using an eclectic mix of classical and pop music to reach its audiences. In the mean time, make sure you watch for Keith Lockhart’s “lead-singer-cutting-off-the-band-jump-move” at the end of the R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A clip. “YEEEEEEEEAAAAAHHHH! NOBODY ROCKS LIKE… SPRINGFIELD! I MEAN BOSTON!”

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