Risky Classical Crossover – Sting’s Symphonicities Is a Hit; Renée Fleming’s Dark Hope May Be a Miss

Pop legend Sting has ventured into the world of symphonic music with the release of his album Symphonicities , while opera diva Renée Fleming explores rock/pop with her album Dark Hope . But while Symphonicities has garnered mostly positive reviews, Dark Hope has received a tepid reaction. This may be because Sting’s album is a self-inspired foray into new territory, while Fleming’s album was derived from the mind of a marketing master. More on that in a moment, but first, here’s some information about each of the albums.

Symphonicities

Symphonicities is a companion piece to Sting’s highly-acclaimed world tour featuring the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Mercurio. The album consists of 12 of Sting’s most famous songs arranged for symphony orchestra including tunes such as “Roxanne”, “Englishman in New York”, and “When We Dance”. The impetus for this project came from Sting’s performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2008 and a collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchestra in celebration of the 153rd anniversary of the Academy of Music.

The tour and the CD have received mostly positive reviews. Here’s a sampling:

Mario Tarradell from the Dallas Morning News wrote, “Sting’s symphonic turn is often brilliant… merging pop and rock with classical isn’t novel, but the Briton… actually makes the usually sleepy combination intriguing, deserving of repeated listens… Backed by grand classical musicians, the songs again – not lose – intensity and energy.

Mikael Wood from the Los Angeles Times wrote, “… if Sting’s confidence can sometimes come across as arrogance, it’s also what makes Symphonicities work: Here’s a songwriter with enough belief in his creations to risk radically retooling them.

Jim Farber from The New York Daily News gave the album a mixed review. “Few of the melodies get a genuine shake-up which explains why fans won’t be shocked by anything they hear… Symphonicities presents rock and classical forms more as respectful colleagues then as true friends. They collaborate peacefully, and likable he, without ever finding each other any great fire.

Dark Hope

Dark Hope features Renée Fleming’s interpretation of rock songs by groups such as Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Death Cab for Cutie, Muse, and Leonard Cohen. Fleming describes the album as a visit to a new universe. According to an article by Ken Berger on the Los Angeles Times, the idea for the album came from New York-based rock manager Peter Mensch. After noticing the daily media hype of “bad boy” violinist Nigel Kennedy, Mensch thought he might be able to garner even more attention with a famous opera diva. Then, in 2007, Mensch saw a poster of Fleming in which she resembled Madonna. Mensch and his partner Cliff Bernstein repeatedly contacted Christopher Roberts, head of Fleming’s record label, Decca, about meeting with Fleming. The meeting was finally arranged in summer 2009.

Mensch then approached producer David Kahne, who had worked with the Bangles, Paul McCartney, and Regina Spektor. Kahne collaborated with Fleming and coached her in the intimate singing style appropriate for the close microphone used in recording rock music. Fleming worked to discover an interpretation which created an authentic point of view for each song.

The album has received mixed reviews.

Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote, “Ms. Fleming treated her rock hymns as an idiom that required certain authentic performance practices, and she learned them. She got friendly with the microphone, turning the songs inward instead of projecting operatic melodrama. Dark Hope is a good start not for operatic fusion – it’s opera free – but for a side career. Ms. Fleming’s next step is figuring out how to sound, now and then, just a little less serious about it all.

Sarah Bee of the BBC said, “The song choices… are uneven yet interesting, and there is little to nitpick about her voice, but the project isn’t altogether successful… this is a respectable collection and a work that embarrasses no one, but is lacking in purpose and ultimately in heart.

Lindsay Lee from Paste Magazine wrote, “Let’s get one thing straight – Renée Fleming has a spine-tingling, tear-inducing, gorgeous voice. That being said, whether you see this record as a comedy or a tragedy, it’s an utter flop… the original songs’ heartfelt sentiments of love and regret… are melodramatically overacted.

The critics react to musical crossover

It would be ridiculous to imply that Renée Fleming is like so many of the naïve artists who blindly follow the recommendations of managers and marketing professionals. Nevertheless, much of the negative feedback may stem from what critics perceive as a lack of authenticity. Renée Fleming approached this album with the same intensity as any of her operatic roles. But Dark Hope wasn’t Fleming’s idea; rather, it was brought to her by a rock manager looking to create a new sensation.

By contrast, Symphonicities was 100% Sting’s brainchild. The idea was sparked by previous performances with symphony orchestras, but Sting has also been delving into the world of classical music for several years. Ben Finane discusses Sting’s classical exploration in an interview from Listen Magazine. Sting’s journey began when he learned how to play the lute and then released a collection of works by composer John Dowland, Songs from the Labyrinth, in 2006. Next came the DVD release of a theatrical production about the relationship between Clara and Robert Schumann entitled Twin Spirits. 2009’s If on a Winter’s Night had a few classical-inspired works and was based on Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise.

There is also something to be said for the critics’ reactions to crossover of any type. Fleming is facing an uphill battle. The classical critics may look down their noses at her for recording a rock/pop album, while the rock critics may feel that Fleming’s musical passion makes the album sound melodramatic. Sting, even though he has garnered mostly positive reviews, is certainly not viewed as a serious classical artist. He’s a pop musician venturing into new territory.

In the end, music is all about experimentation. Whether the inspiration to explore other genres is self-inspired or sparked by others, it’s necessary for true artists to stretch their creative wings in all directions. In this modern world of easy access to all genres of music through the Internet, it’ll be interesting to see what types of classical crossover projects pop up in the future.

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