Roll over Beethoven: It's all about Rick Wakeman's orchestral crossovers now

Rock and orchestral crossovers have a chequered history. But with a new festival and Rick Wakeman’s tour of his landmark album, has their time come at last?

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Over the last five decades, classical and popular music have been uneasy bedfellows. Rock stars Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Lynne and Gary Numan, and electronic pioneers Walter – now Wendy – Carlos, Tomita and William Orbit have reinterpreted Beethoven, Holst and Satie. For a long time, the classical establishment, critics especially, have been sniffy about musicians like Paul McCartney invading their turf. But talk to Rick Wakeman, the classically-trained keyboard maestro, who is about to tour his 1974 album Journey to the Centre of the Earth with an orchestra, as well as to conductor Charles Hazlewood, the artistic director of Orchestival, a new festival celebrating the orchestra and the breakdown of musical barriers, and Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, who will appear at Orchestival, and you can hear attitudes shifting.

“In the early Seventies, classical orchestras had little experience of working with popular music. The main problem always was that you can’t write ‘feel’,” says Wakeman. “Similarly, rock musicians couldn’t understand that, if you were going to combine orchestra and electric instrumentation, the guitar, keyboards or drums had to become part of the orchestra. So you just had orchestral arrangements sitting on top of the music. I started noticing a change in the Eighties and Nineties. Now orchestras are so worldly wise and knowledgeable. They can tune instantly into whatever form of music they are asked to play. The Wagnerian dream of ‘all in the orchestra’ has come true. There is no doubt that it works. It’s exciting. And audiences love it.”

Hazlewood’s decision to launch Orchestival was the culmination of his long-held, “passionate belief that music is one broad stream, with lots of different currents within it. Somehow, over the years, we’ve settled into a strange position where music has become divided into mutually-exclusive categories. If someone likes Wagner, it’s unthinkable they might also like drum’n’bass or soul. That’s nonsense. There is so much which connects all music. A descending bass line in Purcell will crop up in dub or a Portishead track. There’s a tremendous connectivity,” he states with a missionary zeal manifest in the rationale behind Orchestival. “I feel the orchestra needs to be brought closer to the mainstream. You can collide different parts of the musical spectrum in the most fabulous new and unusual ways using this great colouristic device: the orchestra. And it doesn’t need to sound like dad at the disco. It can be a genuinely new hybrid. That’s what we’re seeking to establish at Orchestival.”

An open-air event due to be held at the Bath and West Showground in July, Orchestival will see The Unthanks embark on a new symphonic adventure, include a performance of Squarepusher’s groundbreaking Ufabulum and feature the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble. “I went to college and did a music degree but a lot of people from my generation have not stuck in one department of music,” says Gregory, a fellow believer in the Hazlewood ethos.

Like Rufus Wainwright, Damon Albarn and Neil Hannon, Gregory has written an opera, Piccard in Space – “the cognoscenti hated it”, he admits – while Carl Barât of The Libertines and Marc Almond appeared in Pop’pea, Michael Torke’s “video-pop” adaptation of the Monteverdi opera The Coronation of Poppea at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2012. Last year, Gregory reworked the sarabande from Bach’s Fifth Cello Suite for a BBC Radio 3 Baroque Re-mixed concert with Hazlewood. Gregory is not surprised that Bach crops up time and again, whether in Procol Harum’s epochal 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, or Jethro Tull’s “Bourée” in 1969.

“Bach is the Shakespeare of music. He wrote the book on tonality. There’s no kind of functional harmony that any composer came up with before Stravinsky that isn’t there in Bach,” stresses Gregory, who will perform Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No3 in G major with nine synth players at Orchestival. “It becomes some sort of futuristic chamber group,” he muses, aware of previous crossover pitfalls. “The Sixties still stand out as the most ambitious era.”

Indeed, that decade saw a raft of rocked-up classical tunes racing up the British charts including Rossini’s William Tell overture, turned into the raucous “Piltdown Rides Again” by the US studio group The Piltdown Men in 1961, Tchaikovsky’s “March of the Wooden Soldiers”, aka The Nutcracker Suite, adapted by the maverick Los Angeles producer Kim Fowley into the barnstorming “Nut Rocker”, credited to B Bumble and the Stingers, a UK No1 in 1962, and Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance”, frenetically reworked by Love Sculpture, the Welsh trio led by Dave Edmunds, in 1968.

The flamboyant British keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson took Leonard Bernstein’s “America” – along with snatches of Dvorak’s New World Symphony – into the Top 20 with The Nice in 1968, and Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man to No2 in 1977 with Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the supergroup John Peel dubbed “a waste of electricity”. Emerson regurgitated Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Bartok and Prokofiev, and went the whole hog with his adaptation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in 1971. He also composed a suite, a piano concerto and toured and recorded with an orchestra, but ultimately ran up a blind alley.

Wakeman has mostly resisted the temptation to recycle the greats. “I just used Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” in Journey [to the Centre of the Earth] for the moment they come up through the volcano,” says the musician who composed Journey, based on the Jules Verne novel, after recalling the impression Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf had made on him. “My father took me when I was eight. I was just mesmerised. This was the first time I heard a story being told to music and it never left me.” Coincidentally, David Bowie’s narration of Peter and the Wolf is used by Goldfrapp as stage introduction on their current tour.

In 1969, Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Arnold performed The Concerto for Group And Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, a momentous event in the annals of progressive rock. Last week, Wakeman helped Purple celebrate the memory of Jon Lord, the concerto’s composer and the band’s founder, who spent the last decade of his life working in the classical arena. “Jon was always trying to push the envelope. What he did at that time was a very good stepping stone for what followed,” reflects Wakeman.

Last August, The Stranglers, Cerys Matthews and Laura Marling performed with the London Sinfonietta at a 6Music Prom, yet Hazlewood feels “they could have gone further. These are all steps in the right direction. With the internet, the barriers have come down. People are exploring all sorts of music. An awful lot of musicians from the pop end of the spectrum are queuing up to collaborate with orchestras. We’re trying to establish a new template here. There isn’t another festival like Orchestival.” 

Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth tour starts at Newcastle City Hall on 24 April ( Orchestival featuring the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, The Unthanks and Squarepusher is at Bath and West Showground, Somerset ( 19 to 20 July