Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


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In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. This time, in the second part, we shall talk of five artistes from the ‘classical crossover’ genre.

AMONG western classical purists, the term ‘classical crossover’ generally evokes negative reactions. Many of them, accustomed to formal concert settings and rigid musical rules, believe it is doing more damage than good to the genre. To figure out what bothers them so much, we need to first understand what this phrase actually means.

According to a common definition, ‘classical crossover’ artistes are those who use heavy influences or play popular tunes of western classical music, but do not follow the rules governing the genre. They dress up trendily, use modern instruments and render pop tunes, thus targeting a wider audience.

Within this genre, there is also something called ‘operatic pop’, which refers to singers who do opera songs in a modern manner, or sing pop songs in an operatic style. A related field is ‘symphonic rock’, where bands play rock songs in orchestral style, but that is marketed as a completely different genre, as its audience is totally different.

Obviously, all this is a direct contradiction to the very philosophy of western classical music. If one looks at the traditional form of the music, two features set it apart. To begin with, the musicians have to compulsorily play pieces the way the composers had written them. There is no question of even the slightest modification, or of introducing a personal style. Secondly, the atmosphere at classical shows is largely formal, whether it comes to the overall ambience, the dress codes of musicians or the behaviour of the audience. No matter how much the listener is moved by the music, one cannot clap between movements or even utter ‘Wow’ aloud.

Western classical music has its own beauty and charm, and contains some of the most haunting, romantic or powerful pieces ever written. But the entry of newer forms like jazz, pop and rock in the 20th century ensured that its market went down. Keeping this in mind, a section of musicians and music industry professionals thought of new ways to reach out to both the masses and to youngsters, using western classical music as a base. This was how ‘classical crossover’ was born, somewhere in the mid-1990s. Some people associate it with what was called ‘new age’ music.

In ‘classical crossover’, musicians may do some of the following things. They may adapt old classical pieces by adding drums, guitars or electronic instruments to make them sound peppier and more contemporary. They may compose modern and catchy tunes featuring classical instruments like the violin, viola, cello, harp or piano. They may take popular operatic arias and sing them without the frills, in a mass-oriented style. Or they may take pop songs and give them a classical treatment.

It’s not only in the music, actually. The musicians dress up fashionably, grow their hair any which way, appear in sensuous music videos, dance on stage and even encourage the audience to clap and shout during their performance.

To the purist, all this is complete blasphemy. Yet, slowly and steadily, the genre has attracted a following of its own, mainly comprising people who do not believe in rules and those who are not as musically knowledgeable as the more serious listeners. More than anything else, it has exposed people to the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, and the promoters of the genre believe that those who enjoy ‘classical crossover’ will eventually listen to the purer form.

Technically, the first successful ‘classical crossover’ album was violinist Vanessa-Mae’s ‘The Violin Player’, released in 1995. But prior to that, there were many efforts to bridge the gap between classical and pop.

When Luciano Pavarotti sang ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, the song became so popular that it gave opera music a newer appeal. Similarly, pianist Richard Clayderman, though known more for doing versions of well-known pop songs, also played a few classical favourites in his own style.

Dutch violinist Andre Rieu took well-known classical compositions, including waltzes by Johann Strauss II, and gave them new orchestrations, besides adding entertainment and showmanship at his concerts. Greek composer Yanni composed many tunes that were rooted in the classical style, but were admired by those who liked popular music too. He was labelled a new age musician.

The success of Vanessa-Mae’s album, however, made the industry sit up and think. They looked for artistes who were ready to market and position themselves in a very modern manner, and also play orchestral music their own way.

In the past 17 years or so, many musicians have become part of the genre. Here, we list five artistes with whom one can begin, along with a little background. At the end, we shall name a few more, as recommended listening.

Vanessa-Mae: A British violinist of Far Eastern origin, Vanessa actually started off as a purely classical violinist, recording the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. Over time, she decided to blend techno music with classical violin, and released ‘The Violin Player’ in 1995. Most pieces on the album were new, but Vanessa also played Bach’s famous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’.

Her music was initially described as ‘techno-classical’ and even ‘violin techno-acoustic fusion’. But the huge success of ‘The Violin Player’ and the subsequent entry of other musicians with similar ideas led to the term ‘classical crossover’.

Vanessa later released albums like ‘Storm’, ‘Subject to Change’ and ‘Choreography’, the last one featuring Greek composer Vangelis and India’s very own A R Rahman on the tune ‘Raga’s Dance’. She has collaborated with pop artistes like Janet Jackson, George Michael and Prince, but hasn’t done a new recording in nine years.

Maksim: The pianist grew up in war-torn Croatia but never let anything affect his music studies. His began his recording career with ‘Gestures’, which contained the works of contemporary Croatian composers including the popular Tonci Huljic, but achieved international success with ‘The Piano Player’, where he improvised on pieces by well-known classical composers Handel, Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Rimsky-Korsakov.

His next album ‘Variations Parts 1 & 2’ had some traditional tunes from Croatia, besides variations of classical compositions by Bach, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Later albums like ‘A New World’, ‘Electrik’ and ‘Pure’ have used similar combinations, and one of his best pieces is his adaptation of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, where he has used many other instruments too.

Bond (in picture on top):  An all-girl British-Australian string quartet, Bond rose to fame in 2000 with its debut album ‘Born’. Interestingly, the album was removed from the classical charts as traditionalists felt it was too pop. But it became popular because of some tunes composed by Croatian Tonci Huljic (specially ‘Victory’) and a modern version of Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812’.

Consisting of two violinists, one viola player and one cellist, Bond was known for its fashionable stage costumes, energetic live performances and trendy videos like ‘Explosive’. It has also released the albums ‘Shine’ (which included a string version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’), ‘Classified’ and ‘Play’, which includes rearrangements of classical composer Vivaldi and a crossover version of A R Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’ from the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.

Andrea Bocelli: An operatic tenor, the blind Bocelli has practised both classical and pop territories with equal passion, and has played a major role in popularising ‘operatic pop’.

On the classical side, the Italian’s album ‘Sacred Arias’ is a huge success among those who follow spiritual music. He’s also released many full-length operas on CD, but albums like ‘Bocelli’, ‘Sogno’, ‘Andrea’, ‘Amore’ and ‘Passione’ reflect his crossover side. Among other songs, his versions of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ and the standard ‘Autumn Leaves’, and his duet with Celine Dion on ‘The Prayer’ have added to his mass following.

Sarah Brightman: British actress and singer Sarah Brightman has established herself as the biggest selling soprano of all time. Besides English, she has rendered songs in various European languages, Chinese and Japanese.

Married to and divorced from renowned composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Brightman first earned fame on the stage, specially with the musical ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. She actually released a few crossover albums before Vanessa-Mae, including the well-known ‘Dive’, but her fame as a singer expanded hugely after 1995 with consistent live performances and new releases. Her albums ‘La Luna’, ‘Harem’ and ‘Symphony’ are considered among the best in the genre, and she’s currently working on her latest venture ‘Dreamchaser’, due for release in April.

Besides these five artistes, one can try out violinists Catya Mare and Lindsey Stirling, pianist Myleene Klass, singers Romina Arena and Katherine Jenkins, and the operatic pop vocal group Il Divo. There’s also singer Josh Groban, who besides many easy listening numbers, dabbles in crossover.

These are good enough to begin with, but as mentioned before, appreciation of ‘classical crossover’ depends on how open your mind is to experimentation. It’s relatively a new genre, and may take a few more years to be really established.

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Comments on: "Take Five: The world of ‘classical crossover’" (4)

  1. I read with interest your article – very good & right . When I set with the classical melodies for over 2 years in my headphone looking to find the right words that will justify those timeless melodies, I had a pure intention to bring those melodies to wider audience and show the world that there is nothing like a good melody by the composers as a songwriter myself. https://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/timeless-melodies/id157027992

    • Hi Tally
      Thanks for your mail. I just read about you through Wikipedia and realise that you have also done an album on similar lines. I notice you have sent the link to Timeless Melodies and I shall definitely listen to it soon.

      I am from Bombay, India, where are are not exposed much to Iaraeli music, though Infected Mushroom is pretty popular here. Among some audiences, Ofra Haza is well-known too. Idan Raichiel was in Bombay last month, but as I was travelling I missed his show.

      Some Israeli musicians like Shye Ben-Tsur and the DJ duo Karthick and Gotam have blended Israeli music with Indian sounds. The former has done a Sufi album in Hebrew called ‘Shoshan’, and the latter have blended electronic sounds with Indian and Israeli music on the album ‘Business Class Refugees’. Hope you can check them out.

      Once I listen to your album, I shall surely update my article. But it will be nice is we can exchange notes on music. I definitely want to hear more from Israel, and if there’s anything you’d like to know about Indian music, will be glad to help. My email is nkusnur@gmail.com

      Bye for now
      Naren

  2. Thanks. Enjoyed this post about the crossover genre. I do agree that listening to classical crossover, especially those tracks that are based on classical pieces, often encourages the listener to look for the original pieces to compare and contrast the crossover track the original work. At least, that is how it worked for me when I heard Bond’s tracks “Viva!”, “Winter” and “Fuego”, which led me to numerous artists doing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” including Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. Might also mention that, while the four young women at the top are very attractive, they are not Bond – you’ll not ever see any of the members of Bond looking quite that “conservative”…

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