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Still Hungry like the Wolf yet as Refined as an Adagio

July 17th, 2005

Still Hungry like the Wolf yet as Refined as an Adagio
By Jim Abbott
Sentinel Pop Music Critic

July 17, 2005

MTV stars of the 1980s used to go unplugged, but Duran Duran is heading in the other direction.

Like a twist on the old Hooked On Classics — if you don’t remember, imagine Now That’s What I Call Music for Beethoven and Mozart — “Rio” is going highbrow Monday, with help from the Orlando Philharmonic.

And you thought the song was all about John and Andy Taylor playing air saxophones for bikini-clad extras in that decadent video!

“I tend not to watch them nowadays,” drummer Roger Taylor says of the extravagant mini-movies that made Duran Duran a pioneer of MTV’s first generation. “There are no regrets. That was 1983, and it was a brand-new art form. I think we were very brave trying out a lot of new things.”

The reunited Duran Duran — featuring the three Taylors (who are not related), singer Simon LeBon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes (now all in their 40s) — is trying something new in Central Florida.

The sold-out Orlando show, at the Linda Chapin Auditorium at the Orange County Civic Center, is part of a national series sponsored by Argent Mortgage Co. that puts pop acts into the classical realm.

Or the other way around, depending on your perspective.

“They will be on stage with us, behind the band somewhere,” Roger says, “and it’s a first for us. We’ve never done anything like that before.”

For Duran Duran, the orchestral collaboration is a one-night diversion in the midst of a national tour behind Astronaut, the first album featuring all five original members in more than 20 years.

For organizers of the orchestrated series, which already has presented concerts featuring LeAnn Rimes and Seal, it’s another chance to cobble classical and mainstream audiences into an unlikely alliance that could boost interest in both camps.

“Pop music fans are looking for something a bit more intriguing and interesting to see,” says Denny Young, 39, president of the Elevation Group, which is producing the orchestra collaborations with the financial sponsorship of Argent Mortgage.

The company’s diverse list of entertainment projects includes a creative role in the new Fox reality show So You Think You Can Dance?.

Elevation is big on finding links between seemingly odd combinations.

“The feedback from the orchestras is that our series is helping to bring new and younger attention to the orchestral world, which is good for them,” he says. “There will be people who go to this who have never seen an orchestra.”

Likewise, there will be symphony patrons who might come away with an appreciation for a band that wouldn’t have attracted them to an arena.

Each of the shows is presented in an environment that favors music more than spectacle. Rimes performed with the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall; Seal teamed with the Minnesota Symphony at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. At the end of this month, Jewel will team with the Cleveland Pops at the city’s Cain Park.

“You’re seeing an arena artist in a 2,600-seat venue,” Young says. “The foundation of the series is an intimate setting. When you go see an orchestra, it’s not in a stadium or arena.”

The series is part of a trend toward unlikely symphony collaborations.

The Boston Pops featured three genre-bending country stars –“Redneck Woman” Gretchen Wilson, rowdy duo Big & Rich and “hick-hop” rapper Cowboy Troy — in this year’s Independence Day concert on the Esplanade.

The stars played their own songs and joined the Pops for the premiere of a new patriotic number, “Our Country.”

The Pops had previously featured Trisha Yearwood, Rimes, Amy Grant and Vince Gill, as well as David Lee Roth, Jennifer Holliday and Barry Manilow.

When it works, the concept elevates both the orchestra and the singer. Boston Globe critic Steve Morse found “brilliance” in the full-blown orchestral rendition of “Crazy” by Rimes.

With a stage crew of roughly 46 people in Orlando, not including musicians, such moments don’t come easy.

“It takes a tremendous amount of cooperation between a wide variety of people,” Young says. “There’s the orchestra, the band, the arrangements and conductors. You mesh the sound to have this wonderful fusion, but there’s a lot of logistics.”

While promoters sell the big picture, musical contributors such as Frank McNamara sweat the details.

McNamara, a classical pianist with a taste for rock whose resume includes work with the Irish Tenors and Roger Daltrey, is the conductor for Duran Duran’s Orlando show.

Despite his classical training, McNamara, 45, became transfixed by rock ‘n’ roll early in his career and has never been able to separate the two.

In addition to producing pop records and working as music director on a long-running late-night TV show in Ireland, he has written a symphony based on Beatles songs, a piano concerto inspired by Abba and a rock-gospel version of Handel’s Messiah.

Although he didn’t write the arrangements for Monday’s concert, McNamara composed scores for the shows by Rimes and Seal. He also is working on adaptations of Jewel’s songs for her Cleveland appearance.

Despite the perception that, say, “Hungry Like the Wolf” won’t work with 65 classical musicians sawing away in the background, McNamara says there are only a few instances when an orchestra won’t fit.

“There’s really no song that the orchestra can’t contribute something to or add some extra colors to,” he says. “It would be different if there was no band, obviously, and the orchestra would be the only tool.”

Ballads always work, but McNamara likes to take them in new directions when he can. For the Rimes concert, he transformed her Patsy Cline-style “Blue” into a churning jazz arrangement reminiscent of Nelson Riddle.

In Orlando, the Philharmonic has been listening to live versions of Duran Duran’s music and is scheduled to rehearse today with the band members looking on. The only combined work will take place at soundcheck on Monday.

That won’t leave much time for the big logistical trick: Balancing the electric instruments and the strings.

“You can’t get an orchestra to sound as loud as a rock band without feeding back all over the place,” McNamara says.

Even with so little time, Taylor is confident that the show will unfold without glitches.

“I’m assured he’s an expert at putting bands and orchestras together, so it’s in his hands,” Taylor says. “I think a lot of the Duran Duran stuff lends itself to an orchestra.”

Don’t think so? The man with the baton says think again.

“It’s important to bring those boundaries down,” McNamara says. “I was just saying to a friend of mine that I love Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio,’ but I don’t want to hear it every day.

“We need to broaden the classical repertoire and do music people are familiar with. We need to take the stuffiness out of it because at the end of the day, whether it’s classical music, pop, rock or jazz, we’re entertainers. It should be fun.”

Courtesy Orlando Sentinel