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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 21, 2010; 12:35 PM ET
Categories:  news , random musings  
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Next: Postscript: Michael Jackson on Soundcheck


wow, you come off like a complete snob who is all jealous because your limited expertise is all threatened some how.
In the future i'd suggest you keep your columns to the topic of classical music and let someone who knows something about popular culture comment when your precious orchestra does something that isn't classical in nature.

Posted by: MarilynManson | June 21, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

If an orchestra can play Sting's music, they can do Mike's...

Posted by: cbmuzik | June 21, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I think a lot of MJ fans would be interested in attending this. His music is more than just pop. If you listen closely to his songs, most of them have a sophisticated string arrangements in the background. Also, just a month or two before his death he was working on a classical album. There is an article about it in the Billboard tribute issue. He is, as you said, a classic.

Posted by: weffie | June 21, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

"wow, you come off like a complete snob"

Mark me down in the snob column then, please. I too find the Orchestra Plays the Beatles/MJ/Diamandas Galas concerts boring. In thirty years it will be (if orchestras still exist) Lady Gaga, if they're not already (probably not, couldn't afford the permissions).

They are harmless fun and a good money-spinner, so each to their own. But if orchestras genuinely belive these concerts are part of their programming mission, I would expect to see the players invest the same concentration and energy into 'Thriller' as they do in Mahler.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 21, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Hey losers!!! If you've ever been to one that your kid wasn't in... your a loser..

Posted by: rockettonu | June 21, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

There is nothing snobbish about the article. It asks a legitimate question, "Who exactly wants to hear Michael Jackson's music performed by an orchestra?" The writer indicates a personal lack of interest in classical music "crossover" performances, but then I'm pretty sure we each have the right to like some things and not others.

Snobbery occurs when a dismissive value judgement is made, such as "People whose limited expertise in English grammar causes them to write 'some how' when they mean 'somehow' or to use the wrong form of 'you're' are losers," or "Commenters who hurl insults from behind anonymous usernames are cowards."

Posted by: e_stassen | June 21, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

King of Pop Music. That's kind of like being the best hot dog chef in the world, isn't it?

What kind of people have/attend tributes to serial pedophiles anyway? Yeech. If you go, don't take your kids.

Posted by: grohlik | June 21, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I don't think this is a snobbish article at all. It asks a good question, "Who goes to these concerts?" I would ask, "Do they make money?" The musicians are getting paid, the concert hall has to be staffed. And, most importantly, royalties have to be paid to the entity that owns the performance rights to the music.

If the concert makes much needed money for the orchestra, that's great.

Posted by: GRILLADES | June 21, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

I agree that a lot of fans will be interested in seeing this, and I don't see what the hesitation is in accepting it as a valid musical experience.

Any MJ fans planning to watch the TV Guide Network's Michael Jackson special, Gone Too Soon, on June 25th? I'm really looking forward to it!

Check it out:

Posted by: rheather2762 | June 22, 2010 2:48 AM | Report abuse

I want to register another vote for Anne's comments not being snobbish. Asking who wants to hear a "pop" song in symphonic dress is perfectly reasonable, as would be the opposite: who wants to hear a Beethoven symphony played by a rock group, or even a piano trio. The changes probably have their fans, and it is not illegitimate or snobbish to ask what they find interesting or satisfying in the changes.

Posted by: wsheppard | June 22, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

There are very few rock songs I'd want to hear played by a full symphony orchestra, including even The Beatles (most of whose albums are on my iPod).

I do enjoy hearing live performances of film scores such as those written by Erich Korngold and other classically trained composers.

But I'm not too keen on hearing bleeding chunks of Wagner, because I want the vocal accompaniment. Even such powerful music as "Siegfried's Funeral March" loses impact when the tenor doesn't sing his apostrophe to Brunnhilde.

Now, that's serious snobbery!

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | June 22, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

Anne: Always enjoy your columns. Are we really discussing anything new here? How is this different than the Pops offerings of the last 40 years by symphony orchestras? Johnny Mathis, George Benson, Motown tribute shows, Big Band shows, Louis Armstrong tributes, etc. These have all been staples of American orchestra concert seasons, I see no reason why a Michael Jackson tribute should be any different. The successful orchestra is one that combines the classical repertoire with a variety of other programs that fit the needs of their particular community. I hope this is a wildly successful package which can make money for orchestras around the country.

Posted by: rodneymartell | June 22, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I can sympathize with Anne's column- a lot of rock and pop music really isn't appropriate for an orchestra. And it's a good argument to bring up, wondering what's the reasoning behind such events, other than filling seats.

Nevertheless, I'd hope that some classical fans would be at least curious to hear some of these selections now and then. Is it really fair to pre-judge these shows before even hearing them? Some of it may not be to your liking but what if some of it deepened or challenged your understanding of the music involved? Wouldn't that be worth experiencing now and then?

Posted by: jgrossnas | June 22, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

You're wrong about that. Michael did write orchestra music:

And his songs have been played by an orchestra, and it was beautiful:

Posted by: Cookie6 | June 22, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

You poor girl, Anne. This type of thing isn't done to sell tickets at all. It's a revenge thing for stuff like this:

But seriously, the classical canon is rife with examples of music that has been appropriated from the more "common" music of the people (e.g., Appalachian Spring, Ma Vlast, etc etc.). Playing MJ or the Beatles is just a more direct approach than waiting for some composer to "create" something from their work. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if orchestras in olden days did something similar.

Posted by: prokaryote | June 22, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

"Nevertheless, I'd hope that some classical fans would be at least curious to hear some of these selections now and then. Is it really fair to pre-judge these shows before even hearing them"

Usually, yes. But sadly a lot of these shows are pretty predictable. I'm not against them at all, but if orchestras truly believe that ordinary arrangements of 'Poker Face' are part of their mission, I would like to see the players perform with the same reverence with which they treat Mahler.

Or, as another comment mentioned, bring in a composer to have a crack at interpreting it. But of course this costs time and money, which orchestras are loathe to spend on 'pop'.

Prokaryote- you may want to check out Jody Talbot's orchestral arrangements of White Stripes songs. They're fabulous (used by the Royal Ballet for 'Chroma' fairly recently) and, for me, present an ideal result of what you mention.

Posted by: ianw2 | June 22, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

I've played in quite a few of these types of shows. They are very popular, both with audiences and sponsors, and, if the guest artist is not too expensive, a good money spinner for an orchestra. They generally require only one rehearsal, leaving time in the same orchestra week to rehearse and perform other, classical repertoire, educational oncerts etc..

They are different from both the very nice 1995 CD, 'Fortress: The London Symphony Orchestra Performs the Music of Sting' and the 'Rosemary Clooney with orchestra' types of concerts of past decades, in that they are basically a cover band with charts, or arrangements for orchestra. Despite being amplified, the orchestra is often seen, but not heard over the much-more-amplified rock band at the front of the stage. I wouldn't call it crossover.

The concerts appeal, by-and-large to boomers. It's the music of their youth (and mine). I'm fond of pointing out that, when I started my career, The Sound of Music was 20 years old, and now Led Zeppelin is over 40. The audiences for the pops concerts of 30 years ago is now dying off and being replaced by an audience for whom loud, bass and drums is the norm. Though it would be nice, there is little expectation of these audiences migrating to Haydn.

Unfortunately, from the standpoint of building and maintaining artistic standards in an orchestra, these types of concerts are probably worse than the Pops of past generations, where Broadway medleys and 'unplugged' arrangements more-or-less in the style of Leroy Anderson were the norm.

I wish there were more conductors and arrangers around trying their hand at projects like the Sting one, referred to above. There could be a market, if well done.

Posted by: mirt | June 22, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

A quick reference for poster W Sheppard: apparently Beethoven himself DID arrange his Second Symphony for Piano Trio, they share the same opus number, 36 (although it seems to me the arrangement should be opus 36b). He also made an arrangment of one of his lesser piano sonatas (one published without authorization of LvB) for string quartet, although it's almost never played during traversals of his complete string quartet oeuvre. (Here in Boston, THREE groups are performing the set over two years!) If you check Amazon, the Beaux Arts Trio's collection of all of LvB's works for piano trio include the arrangement of the Second Symphony. And now a mild scold to Ann: what do you mean by "straitjacketed into a single kind of music"? A single symphony orchestra concert can, and often does, offer multiple styles of composition, created over three or more significant time periods, by men (or women) from a myriad of ethnic or cultural backgrounds. And the works heard in such a variegated program can easily reflect different levels of complexity. I've been to quite a few concerts by symphony orchestras and other ensembles that were almost as much of a workout for the listeners as for the performers!

Posted by: lglavin | June 22, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

“The message is that Michael Jackson isn’t just great: he’s a classic.”

And Jazz is America’s only true classical music.

(I also remember the video -- broadcast on PBS -- of the San Francisco Symphony’s “S & M” album conducted by Michael Kamen from April 1999. It must have led to tens of thousands of new classical music fans.

Rest in Peace, Michael Jackson, Michael Kamen, and Peter Shelton.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 22, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

I believe the writer of this column overlooks the obvious. Many performers of classical music and their audience enjoy more than one musical genre and experimentation in which they are combined can work well.

For instance, not long ago the Nashville Symphony performed an evening of Stevie Wonder songs. The arrangements were a different take on his classic hits. Although I initially wondered how they would pull it off, indeed they did.

A few months later I ran into one of the performers while out to dinner and he indicated that in his youth he had been quite the Stevie Wonder fan. I suspect this is not unusual.

Posted by: meridamgrant | June 25, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

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