Sunday, June 27, 2010

Music feature: Conductor, guitarist happy to be touring with Sting

Gordon Sumner,‭ ‬better known as Sting.

By Bill Meredith

Pop music went through the beginnings of a seismic shift in late‭ ‬1976,‭ ‬when the artist formerly known as Gordon Sumner decided to give up a teaching career in his hometown of Newcastle,‭ ‬England.‭

The‭ ‬25-year-old Brit was also a vocalist and bassist who'd taken on the stage name Sting,‭ ‬and he was preparing to move to London as Christmas approached.‭ ‬Playing a farewell Newcastle show with his band Last Exit,‭ ‬he was approached by American drummer Stewart Copeland,‭ ‬then with the group Curved Air.

Within six months,‭ ‬those bands were history.‭ ‬Sting and Copeland enlisted British guitarist Andy Summers and formed The Police,‭ ‬arguably the most important pop band since The Beatles.‭ ‬And like the Fab Four,‭ ‬this trio didn't have a long shelf life‭ (‬1977-1984‭)‬.‭ ‬Things were unraveling by the recording sessions for Sting's‭ ‬1985‭ ‬solo debut,‭ ‬The Dream of the Blue Turtles,‭ ‬but the frontman has since remained not only the trio's most high-profile figure‭ (‬with worldwide record sales of nearly‭ ‬100‭ ‬million‭)‬,‭ ‬but one of the world's most recognizable celebrities.

Having referenced everything from jazz and blues to reggae and world music through his‭ ‬40-year career,‭ ‬Sting's latest recordings have ventured into the classical realm.‭ ‬The‭ ‬2006‭ ‬release‭ ‬Songs From the Labyrinth featured lute-based interpretations of‭ ‬16th-century composer John Dowland's music‭; ‬the‭ ‬2009‭ ‬disc‭ ‬If‭ ‬On a Winter's Night‭…‬ holiday renditions of traditional songs and material by Schubert and Bach,‭ ‬and the new orchestral‭ ‬Symphonicities‭ ‬CD variations on Police and Sting tunes with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra,‭ ‬conducted by Steven Mercurio.‭ ‬All are on Deutsche Grammophon.‭

The‭ ‬Symphonicity ‬tour started in May with a lineup that includes the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra,‭ ‬Mercurio and longtime guitarist Dominic Miller.‭ ‬Sting brings the‭ ‬50-piece ensemble to the Cruzan Ampitheater in West Palm Beach on Friday.‭ ‬For Mercurio,‭ ‬the tour actually presented an introduction to the compositions.
Steven Mercurio.

‭“‬I didn't even really‭ ‬know Sting's music before this,‭”‬ says the genial,‭ ‬54-year-old‭ ‬New York City-based conductor.‭ “‬We'd never met.‭ ‬I may have heard a few of his songs,‭ ‬but I only really knew of him as a personality.‭ ‬The two sides that brought us together were Live Nation and Universal.‭ ‬Live Nation handles the nuts and bolts of the tour,‭ ‬and when Sting wanted to use a philharmonic,‭ ‬Universal was in charge of the classical element‭; ‬taking care of the orchestra and conductor.‭ ‬The people there knew me,‭ ‬and so far,‭ ‬the tour has been terrific.‭ ‬We're having a ball.‭"

Miller wasn't all that familiar with Sting's catalog,‭ ‬either,‭ ‬when he was in a similar position‭ ‬20‭ ‬years ago.

“I had a jazz and classical background in the‭ '‬80s,‭”‬ said the‭ ‬50-year-old guitarist,‭ ‬who's been with Sting since his‭ ‬1991‭ ‬album‭ ‬The Soul Cages.‭ ‬“But I ended up working with‭ [‬former Police‭] ‬producer Hugh Padgham on a few projects.‭ ‬One‭ ‬was Phil Collins‭' ‬1990‭ ‬album‭ ‘‬But Seriously,‭’‬ which ended up being a huge success.‭ ‬Hugh told Sting about me‭; ‬I went over and jammed with him,‭ ‬and here I still am.‭ ‬At the time,‭ ‬I liked The Police and I liked Sting,‭ ‬but I wouldn't have called myself a fan.‭ ‬I've certainly become one,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬because these are really great songs.‭ ‬You can play them any way,‭ ‬including with an orchestra,‭ ‬and they'll stand up.‭”

Part of the reason that Sting's songs translate into the classical realm is new arrangements.‭ ‬The composer cast a wide net for reinterpretations,‭ ‬and drew it back with gems by Vince Mendoza,‭ ‬Michel Legrand,‭ ‬Rob Mathes,‭ ‬Jorge Calandrelli,‭ ‬David Hartley,‭ ‬Bill Ross,‭ ‬Nicola Tescari,‭ ‬Robert Sadin,‭ ‬and Mercurio himself.‭ ‬The conductor earned his master’s degree from Juilliard in‭ ‬1982,‭ ‬was mentored by Leonard Bernstein,‭ ‬and has worked with the New York Philharmonic and operatic vocalists Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli.‭ ‬Hardly a classical elitist,‭ ‬Mercurio was not only open to working with a pop star,‭ ‬but excited at the prospect after their first meeting.

‭“Everything happened so quickly,‭” ‬Mercurio says.‭ “‬Sting lives over at Central Park West,‭ ‬so I went over and we discussed his ideas for the tour.‭ ‬I told him what I could help him do,‭ ‬and one thing was to bring the orchestra to him,‭ ‬which made him feel more comfortable.‭ ‬As a composer and arranger myself,‭ ‬he knew I could also help modify and adjust the pieces as he saw fit.‭ ‬We're continuing to do that.

‭“‬The biggest challenge is probably not losing the integrity of the original pop songs,‭ ‬while not making the orchestra subservient.‭ ‬We didn't want a pops concert,‭ ‬or a rock show where the orchestra is playing whole notes and just humming in neutral.‭ ‬We wanted it to be close to‭ ‬50/50,‭ ‬and I think we've achieved that.‭”

For Miller,‭ ‬that means having to make his voice heard in the modification process.

“I'm hoping that the arrangers won't recognize their arrangements by the end of this tour,‭”‬ he says with a laugh‭ (‬and a lasting British accent from his London days that belies the fact that he was born in Buenos Aires‭; ‬attended high school in Wisconsin,‭ ‬and currently lives in France‭)‬.‭ “‬They were asked to do a job,‭ ‬which they did really well.‭ ‬But we're playing the songs,‭ ‬so I'm trying things that might influence Sting and Steven to rethink them.‭ ‬They change and evolve as we go,‭ ‬the same as in a rock band.‭ ‬If the orchestra were a keyboard player,‭ ‬we'd be doing the same thing.‭”

Mercurio canceled summer performances of Verdi’s‭ ‬Rigoletto with the Italian Teatro L'Opera company,‭ ‬among‭ ‬other projects,‭ ‬to conduct the‭ ‬Symphonicity‭ ‬tour.‭ ‬He recalls its initial rehearsals as brief yet productive.

‭“‬We had a week in New York a few months ago‭ ‬where we went through‭ ‬28‭ ‬songs,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬We kept‭ ‬26‭ ‬of them.‭ ‬But we adjusted both the orchestrations and the forms‭; ‬redid introductions and codas,‭ ‬thinned things out and added things.‭ ‬Sting got excited after that,‭ ‬and started suggesting other tunes.‭”

Miller says rehearsals‭ “‬were‭ ‬really good and a lot of fun.‭ ‬What a luxury to rehearse with an‭ ‬orchestra.‭ ‬And what an expense‭!”

The‭ ‬2007-2008‭ ‬Police reunion‭ ‬tour,‭ ‬by contrast,‭ ‬featured fewer musicians and expenses but significantly more tension.‭ ‬Though he playing some of the same songs,‭ ‬Sting has referred to the experience as‭ “‬like going back to a dysfunctional marriage.‭”

For the‭ ‬Symphonicity tour,‭ ‬Mercurio's arrangements‭ ‬include Sting's solo offerings‭ ‬You Will Be My Ain True Love and‭ ‬When We Dance.‭ ‬It was also his idea to preface Mendoza's arrangement of‭ ‬Russians with the coronation scene from Mussorgsky's‭ ‬Boris Godunov.

‭“‬There were so many arrangers‭ ‬that it was like a big pile-up,‭”‬ says Mercurio.‭ ‬“I think there are six different ones on the album alone,‭ ‬but they were all coordinated by Rob Mathes.‭ ‬He produced the record and did‭ ‬35‭ ‬to‭ ‬40‭ ‬percent of the arranging.‭ ‬My job with him was to make sure that all the arrangements fit this size orchestra and‭ ‬worked well for Sting.‭”

The‭ ‬Symphonicities CD,‭ ‬to be released July‭ ‬13,‭ ‬features Police hits in‭ ‬Roxanne,‭ ‬Next to You and‭ ‬Ev’ry Little Thing She Does Is Magic,‭ ‬as well as a lesser-known gem in‭ ‬I Burn for You.‭ ‬The other tracks are all Sting solo efforts,‭ ‬including‭ ‬Englishman in New York,‭ ‬We Work the Black Seam and‭ ‬She's Too Good for Me.‭ ‬Yet the tour was scheduled well before the CD was even considered.

‭“‬Once Sting started hearing the arrangements with the orchestra,‭ ‬he‭ ‬said,‭ '‬We have to record this,‭’” ‬Mercurio says.‭ “‬We were just scheduled to tour before that.‭ ‬So we went to London to rehearse for a week after the initial rehearsals,‭ ‬during which time other songs were added and the original tunes were adjusted more,‭ ‬and then we did the recording.‭ ‬After that,‭ ‬we did warm-up gigs in Germany and Morocco,‭ ‬then started the official tour on June‭ ‬2‭ ‬in Vancouver.‭”

Dominic Miller.

‬While Mercurio has familiarized himself with Sting's music through the prism of a‭ ‬45-piece orchestra,‭ ‬Miller is the musical director for his accompanying smaller touring lineup,‭ ‬which includes vocalist Jo Lawry,‭ ‬bassist Ira Coleman,‭ ‬and percussionists Rhani Krija and David Cossin.‭ ‬The orchestral context may be different from his norm,‭ ‬but Miller has grown used to change with Sting.

“‬I don‭'‬t really see a huge difference,‭” ‬he says.‭ “‬This job has always been interesting,‭ ‬challenging and taxing as a musician,‭ ‬because you're always evolving.‭ ‬And this is my biggest challenge in‭ ‬20‭ ‬years with Sting.‭ ‬The difference is that we now have an orchestra,‭ ‬which I see as just like having another instrument,‭ ‬although they don't jam‭! ‬Bands like Deep Purple and Metallica have played with orchestras,‭ ‬but they've been more like separate entities.‭ ‬In our case,‭ ‬the band and‭ ‬orchestra are very merged.‭”

Neither Miller nor Mercurio will be able to merge with their non-Sting musical endeavors any‭ ‬time soon,‭ ‬since a European‭ ‬Symphonicity‭ ‬tour will start in September after the North American dates conclude.‭ ‬The oft-nylon-stringed guitarist recently released his seventh solo CD,‭ ‬an electric,‭ ‬fusion-influenced instrumental effort that was produced by Padgham called‭ ‬November‭ (‬Q-rious‭)‬.‭ ‬Yet he has no time to tour in support of it.

‭ “‬I have some momentum going with my band,‭” ‬Miller says,‭ “‬particularly in Europe,‭ ‬the Middle East and the Far East.‭ ‬But I've put that on hold.‭ ‬I might be able to do some midnight shows along the way,‭ ‬but then again,‭ ‬I have the best day job in the world‭! ‬I've never passed up an opportunity to work with Sting,‭ ‬and never will.‭”

Mercurio's latest recording is the‭ ‬2006‭ ‬orchestra-and-vocal CD‭ ‬Many Voices‭ (‬Sony‭)‬.‭ ‬He's currently trying to find time to complete a four-movement symphony inspired by Eugene O'Neill's work‭ ‬The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog.‭ ‬O'Neill dedicated the piece to his wife after the death of their family pet in‭ ‬1940,‭ ‬and Mercurio's wife presented him with a copy upon the loss of theirs.

‭“‬It's called‭ ‘‬A Grateful Tail,‭’‬ and most of the movements are almost done,‭” ‬Mercurio says.‭ “‬It's the third movement,‭ ‬with the O'Neill text in it,‭ ‬and the first movement,‭ ‬an eight or nine-minute allegro,‭ ‬that I'm trying to find time to finish.‭ ‬Some of the movements have already been performed and gotten a great response,‭ ‬so the entire symphony‭ ‬will be recorded and presented.‭”

All in good time,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬since both conductor and guitarist seem to enjoy being part of their current Sting with strings movement.

‭“‬It's been very exciting,‭” ‬Mercurio says.‭ “‬It's great to watch people react,‭ ‬and the response has been phenomenal.‭ ‬A lot of Sting's audience doesn't usually experience an orchestra,‭ ‬but at the end of shows,‭ ‬they're telling me,‭ ‘‬Wow,‭ ‬the orchestra really rocks.‭’‬ I've done six productions of‭ ‘‬Rigoletto‭’‬ already,‭ ‬but this was a unique experience that I felt was,‭ ‬ironically,‭ ‬even more artistically interesting.‭

“Everyone involved in this wants to contribute and get it right.‭ ‬I don't think musicians are as judgmental anymore,‭ ‬thankfully.‭ ‬They're more three-dimensional now.‭ ‬They know that you can play pop music brilliantly,‭ ‬and you can play Mozart badly,‭” ‬he says.‭ ‬“And that doing this the right way is more fulfilling.‭”

Miller even says that‭ “‬Sting's compositions aren't that different from Bach's.‭"

“He doesn't play it safe,‭ ‬and he inspires us not to,‭ ‬either.‭ ‬He did‭ ‬a lute album,‭ ‬of all things‭; ‬re-formed The Police,‭ ‬and did a winter album.‭ ‬He's done risky things,‭ ‬and I stand by him.‭ ‬I wouldn't necessarily compare Police songs to Bach,‭ ‬but really good composition is indestructible.‭ ‬Which made this a fantastic opportunity.‭”

Sting and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra perform at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Friday,‭ ‬July‭ ‬2,‭ ‬at the Cruzan Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Tickets range from‭ ‬$27-$157‭ ‬and are available through Live Nation.

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