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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1609

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Sting: Symphonicities
by George Graham

(Deutche Grammophon B0014464 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/1/2010)

Attempts to combine rock with classical orchestral music have a long and checkered history. In the right hands the result can be brilliant -- for example the Beatles with George Martin's arrangements, the Moody Blues Days of the Future Past which became a classic, and more recently Corky Siegel's Chamber Blues. But it seems more often than not, the result can be quite dreadful with schlocky arrangements that just pile on the strings and classical trappings on tunes for which such things are almost diametrically opposite. In the 1970s there were numerous such musical culture clashes such as this cringe-inducing gem from Ronnie Charles. <<>>

There is a temptation to do this kind of thing among performers as they get older, and high energy rock looks increasingly silly on them, and they are still rich enough to hire an orchestra. Some have gone Vegas, crooning Tin Pan Alley standards, mostly very poorly. But a few have used the orchestra effectively, in same cases to revisit older songs, such as Joni Mitchell did on her 2002 album Travelogue, or as Peter Gabriel did on his CD called Scratch My Back from earlier this year, do orchestral reinventions of other people's music.

This week we have another venerable and popular figure on the music scene who has taken the orchestral plunge. It's Sting, whose new recording is called Symphonicities.

In a way, this CD seems almost inevitable. Sting has been using increasingly eclectic backing on his recordings, and has not been afraid to use orchestral musicians on his previous albums. Recently he has been touring to perform songs from his career in an orchestral setting with symphony orchestras. This CD is also another on which Sting has been revisiting some of his older songs.

And given Sting's reputation for high musical quality, one has lofty expectations for a project like this, and the result generally does not disappoint. The arrangements are tasteful for the most part, and the temptation is avoided to make everything fully symphonic. In fact, there are three different orchestral groups on two continents that appear, a full symphony -- the London Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, and two chamber groups The New York Chamber Consort and the group called the London Players. All the arrangements are by Rob Mathes, who conducted the chamber groups, while one Steven Mercurio conducted the full orchestra.

One can infer from the liner notes and credits that this was very much a composite recording, with Sting laying down his vocals at several studios in New York and Los Angeles, and the orchestral backing recorded separately. But it comes together well.

The material is an interesting cross-section of Sting's work. There are a couple of classic hits by the Police, such as Roxanne and Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, plus music that came from Sting's solo albums, which themselves began to tend toward the orchestral. There are also two songs that are more-or-less given their debut, which previously came from one-off, or side projects. For me, the CD shines most in the way old Police songs are reinvented with the orchestral backing, some of which maintain their old energy level. But a few of the songs from the latter Sting solo albums come across as high-budget big-production numbers seeming orchestral for the sake of being orchestral, or not that much of a change from the original. Generally the bigger the orchestra that appears on a track, the less-interesting it is. Sting concentrates almost exclusively on vocals, with just a little acoustic guitar on his part, and none of his bass playing,

The CD opens with an old Police song Next to You, which comes off as one of the most energetic and effective tracks on the CD. It's with the New York Chamber Concert and some percussion. <<>>

One of the tracks from a solo Sting album which is given a treatment that is a logical extension of the original album arrangement, is Englishman in New York. Again, it's with the smaller orchestral group and is nicely done. <<>>

One of my favorite Police songs is Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, which in its original version combined an infectious hummable tune with rather sophisticated musical ingredients. Ironically, this arrangement seems to strip the song down some, and curiously largely leaves off Sting's distinctive bass line. Though much of what made it such a great song is still there, this is not one of the tracks on which the orchestral treatment improved things much. Interestingly Sting does some the strained-sounding vocals that were his trademark with the Police, and which he has avoided in recent years. <<>>

One of what could be considered new songs on the CD is Will You be My Ain True Love, which Sting originally recorded in 2003 with Alison Krauss. The duet vocal on this track, and indeed vocally supplementing throughout the CD, is Jo Lawry. This features the full London Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, and it takes full advantage of them with the somewhat dramatic arrangement. <<>>

Also with the full symphony is the Police classic Roxanne. It's such a contrast from the original and it's so well done, that it's definitely one of the highlights of this recording. <<>>

Another very creative treatment of a Sting song is We Work the Black Seam, a mining song from his 1985 Dream of the Blue Turtles album. In the liner notes to Symphonicities it was pointed out that Sting grew up in Northern English mining town in which the miners formed brass bands. So the musical setting for this version is an orchestral brass choir. It's the lengthiest track on the CD and another of its high points, with one of Sting's best vocal performances on the album. <<>>

On the other hand, for me a disappointment is the version of I Hung My Head, from Sting's 1996 CD Mercury Falling. This is more of an acoustic folk song. To give it that direction, a harmonica is added, but the orchestral treatment still sounds ponderous. <<>>

The CD ends with The Pirate's Bride, which takes to the orchestral arrangement perfectly. The romantic-sounding song originally appeared on a 1996 EP I Was Brought to My Senses. Jo Lawry provides the backing vocals. <<>>

In many ways, Sting's new CD Symphonicities is pretty much what you would expect -- orchestral treatments of Sting's compositions covering his career from the early songs of the Police to some newer, more obscure material. And as one would expect from Sting, it's all very high quality, and compared to many orchestral-rock fusion albums tastefully done. Some of the arrangements work better than others -- for some reason, the tracks with the smaller chamber groups usually outshine those with the full symphony orchestra -- and the reworkings of what were more rock-oriented songs by the Police tend to be more interesting than the performances of the latter Sting material which got somewhat orchestral in its original form. But generally, this is a worthwhile and satisfying album, especially for fans of Sting, who enjoy the eclectic directions he has taken in his career.

Our grade for sound quality is a full "A." The players may have been recorded on two continents and on two coasts, but sonically, it's nicely integrated, the orchestral recordings are well-done, and the CD has a good dynamic range. Perhaps it's because it is released on the classical-oriented Deutche Grammophon label, and classical recordings as a rule are not compressed like rock albums.

The music scene is littered with bad or tasteless attempts at squashing together rock and classical. Sting succeeds where many have failed.

(c) Copyright 2010 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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