Ode to Michael Jackson, symphonic style
Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, was certainly one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time. But he didn’t write for an orchestra.
It’s normal, in summer, for orchestras to reach out to new audiences, blatantly, with music beyond the classical canon, or even the standard pops one. At Wolf Trap on July 30, the National Symphony Orchestra is offering “Distant Worlds,” a concert of music from the video game “Final Fantasy” to commemorate the game’s 20th anniversary. In Baltimore on July 15, the BSO is going them one better with a Michael Jackson Tribute at the orchestra’s home, the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, a little more than a year after Jackson's death.
These crossover projects aren’t my bailiwick; I realize that they have a large audience, though I always wonder exactly who they are. Do die-hard Jackson fans really want to hear his music in a form that has very little to do with the way it was originally performed? (Nothing against James Delisco, one of the lead vocalists on the project.) And if not, who is buying the tickets?
I suspect one factor is that on some level, an orchestra still functions as a signifier of high quality. Even people who don’t gravitate toward classical music may have a general idea that performance by an orchestra is the highest level to which music can aspire. The message is that Michael Jackson isn’t just great: he’s a classic.
(read more after the jump)
It's easy to dismiss the orchestra's aims as merely the materialistic longing for robust ticket sales (certainly no easy thing in this economy). One could argue that it’s good for an orchestra to demonstrate that it is indeed able to respond to the tastes of its community rather than being straitjacketed into a single kind of music. But is the musical quality of such a performance sufficient to back up that assertion rather than make the event seem like a blatant play for attention? I could make more of a case for “Final Fantasy” or the “Lord of the Rings” Symphony, which are both expansions of music that was written for instrumental forces; film soundtracks are often symphonic, and video-game music is establishing itself as a genre in its own right. For the Michael Jackson concert, however, the BSO will simply play arrangements of songs that were conceived for the scrappier ensemble of the Jackson Five, or the sophisticated recording technology of Thriller.
Overall, though, the BSO's summer offerings are more varied and less schmaltzy than those of many orchestras. July’s performances include a concert of Frank Zappa and Philip Glass and a concert performance of “Porgy and Bess,” both events that combine broad appeal with genuine musical significance. I'd even give a nod to their live accompaniment to “Planet Earth,” the mother of all nature documentaries; you could argue that live music is a kind of aural HD accompaniment to the film's remarkable nature footage.
And they're even democratic in their pop-music tastes. On July 16th, they’ll play music of the Eagles. I just won’t be there.
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