Sunday, August 26, 2007

Crossing Over Rickety Bridges

If you head over here, you'll see that the answers have been pouring in for Matthew Guerrieri's latest quiz. There's a part of me that finds this sort of quiz a confirmation that classical musical lovers love nothing more than to show off what they know. But, it's also a lot of fun to see all the answers that such an open-ended quiz inspires and - well, it's fun to show off.

To that end, I don't think anyone's topped my "Sting sings Dowland" answer for worst classical crossover album ever. I mean, just listen. (If that link doesn't work, head over here and sample #16.) On the other hand, it's not such a bad idea, as crossover concepts go. In fact, Dowland lute songs have a lot more in common with the music of Sting than they do with Beethoven, Mahler, or Stravinsky; there's more potential here than when Barbra Streisand or Michael Bolton take on the great opera arias or when Jose Carreras masquerades as one of the Jets. The Dowland project could have been a great bridge-builder if Sting didn't sound like a dying animal while singing; I don't doubt that there's a pop artist out there who could pull it off better than many opera singers, but Sting's voice has really gone down since he peaked with "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well."

In theory, bridge-building is what crossing over is about, which makes me surprised that so many of the quiz-takers just scoffed at the whole idea of "best crossover." I guess the cynicism is justified by the fact that so many crossover projects seem to be more about crossing to where the money is as opposed to connecting different kinds of musical expression. In fact, I couldn't come up with a really great example of a classical musician taking on rep outside the comfort zone, although I'm sure I'm missing something. Poor Yo-Yo Ma has tried, but most of what I've heard is unconvincing. I've seen him try to play "Mood Indigo" with Wynton Marsalis and I've heard him try to do Cole Porter with Stephan Grappelli and the results come out . . . awkwardly. (Check out his pizzicato towards the end of that clip.)

As it happens, I was listening just yesterday to a recording of Andrew Manze play the famous Corelli La Follia variations and was struck by the freewheeling, improvisatory quality of his playing - it sounded more like a bluegrass fiddler than a classical violinist; in other words, it sounded like crossover playing because it convincingly linked two different traditions. I picked Shirim's klezmer version of Peter and the Wolf as my favorite crossover album because it does the same king of thing; it reveals the folksiness in Prokofiev's tunes and even adds to the playfulness in a way that makes sense for a childrens' piece. I mentioned in my comment to question #2 that I've always found Prokofiev's original narration (both its tone and the story itself) a little unsatisfying. Maybe that's a translation problem, but maybe this great composer just wasn't a good storyteller. It's not surprising that Maurice Sendak's version would be an improvement.

It's also not surprising, given my interest in translation and transcription, that I would see lots of good potential in crossovers, but there has to be a really creative meeting of minds for them to be interesting. Just handing an opera singer a showtune isn't enough. Even fairly creative efforts seem just as likely to come out oddly, though. In the classical -> pop direction I could cite the King's Singers' various Beatles efforts; going the other way, we have Emerson, Lake, and Palmer reinventing Pictures at an Exhibition. In each case, some real re-creation is going on, but the end product doesn't seem genuine. Actually, in spite of myself, I'd have to say the East Village Opera Company may build a better bridge than most. (I believe one person did mention them on the Soho quiz.) I haven't heard all of their work, but a student once sent me a link to this Nessun dorma cover as a joke. You know what? It's pretty darn good for what it is - Puccini's aria (which I've always thought was a little overrated, even though I love Puccini) makes an excellent rock anthem. If only Jonathan Larsen had been able to write like this.

1 comment:

Elaine Fine said...

I agree about that Sting Dowland. He does make a good case (though not intentionally) for why people should study diction, though.