Pop goes Mozart: New marriage of classical and rock

Young serious musicians are blending classical and rock to broaden their appeal. And it helps if they look good
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The Independent Culture

In a trendy bar in South London golden-skinned lovelies in flip-flops, and young men in open-necked shirts, are sipping drinks as they wait. Toni Castells, a one-time classical musician, is about to perform his debut album under the name of Momo live for the first time. He approaches the microphone and announces that the album is dedicated to love, in particular his personal quest to find the true variety. By the end of the set the wait has been more than worth it. In fact, I would happily wait several hours to see it all over again.

Castells, 31, with his trendy band of followers and good looks, is not your usual classical musician. The album, Unharmed, is a blend of chill-out electronica, dramatic strings and pop and opera voices. His ensemble features a string quartet – two violins, a viola and a cello – while Castells plays the electric guitar. Female vocalists, some pop, one operatic, provide the lyrics. One of them is the comely Roberta Howett, an X Factor finalist. Castells, from Barcelona, who composed all the tracks, intersperses them with spoken lines of poetry. It should go down a storm this summer in Ibiza.

"The fusion between classical and pop is not intentional," he says the following day, looking like Michelangelo's David, with his unshorn curls. "It's not conscious at all. It's a language I know. This is how it flows into me. I start writing songs with piano or guitar. With the piano there's possibly a more classical angle to it, then things come very naturally. To add guitars to a string quartet is so natural to me. Some people think classical music is about really boring scores. It's not like that at all. Most of the songs of yesterday are harmonically really simple, like pop music. Most of Mozart's harmony songs were three or four chords. It's the same with Puccini's operas. He's a genius, but it's extremely simple. It's like the pop music of his time. People may say my work is too intellectual, but what's intellectual about love?"

Castells started his classical music training at the age of five playing guitar, piano and clarinet, urged on by his mother, a devoted opera fan. He joined several youth orchestras either as a guitar soloist or as an instrumentalist, and toured Europe several times. At the age of 12, he formed a pop/rock band called Korrefok and in 1997 Korrefok became Herzia. Spain's music magazine Popular 1 said of their debut album: "If there be justice, Herzia's Coses Que Passen should become the most important pop release this year."

In 2000 he moved to London and worked as a sound engineer for Jose Maria Cano, of the multi-million-selling Spanish pop group Mecano. He then spent four years as a recording engineer at the Royal College of Music, and now lectures in music technology. He hopes to get a record deal – he has released Unharmed on his own label – which would free up more time for his music.

So why choose love as a theme? "Love is the energy that powers everything. It's so powerful it can also destroy things. Some people are in love with their land and they fight to their death for it," he says. So has he succeeded in his personal quest to find true love? "No," he admits. "Possibly I'm going to find it in a person or in my music. I think it's good that I haven't found it yet."

Castells is not the only classical musician causing a stir amongst younger listeners. Gardar Cortes, 33, who, according to Newsweek, has the "voice of Pavarotti and the looks of Brad Pitt" (there is no resemblance) is currently setting ears and hearts a flutter. His debut album, Cortes, went straight in at No1 in the classical charts, outselling Pavarotti. It is a colourful mix including "Nessun Dorma", "Hunting High and Low" (which was a hit for the Norwegian band A-Ha in the 1980s), a duet with Katherine Jenkins and some Icelandic numbers.

The tenor is the biggest selling artist of all time in his native Iceland. He was a guest tenor on Katherine Jenkins's autumn tour, and is supporting Lesley Garrett later this year.

Going straight to number one and outselling Pavarotti was a huge surprise. "It was great, really," he says on the phone from Reykjavik. "Who would think an unknown artist in the UK with a debut album in this genre of music would do that?"

His Icelandic father was once a world class tenor, but got so homesick touring that he founded the Icelandic Opera, the Reykjavik Symphony Orchestra and the Reykjavik Academy of Singing. Gardar's English mother is a concert pianist and his brother and sister are both classical singers. In 1999 he won the lead role of Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre in London's West End. He then won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music and worked all over Europe playing lead tenor roles.

"Hunting High and Low" was a curious choice considering its associated 1980s naffness. "It's a good song and we thought it would work well with a classical makeover," he says. "I'm trying to introduce classical music to the masses. I'm hoping an album with more crossover music will maybe catch people's eyes and ears more than if I had done an album with just popular arias."

'Unharmed' by Momo is out on Instant Attraction Records. 'Hunting High and Low' is out on Believer Music