So you went to your high school class reunion and found that, 20 years on, the dignified, reserved and bookish class valedictorian married the loud, boisterous and rebellious longhair. Back in school, they never even glanced at one another, each representing to the other a lifestyle and set of values anathema to their personal codes. And yet, they ended up together, bought a house in the 'burbs, had a few kids and seem to be getting along quite well, thank you.
In a similar fashion, rock 'n' roll and classical music have been sharing bed and board for some 40 years now, much as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Led Zeppelin will this weekend. Stranger bedfellows have rarely been noted.
Classical music is the serious stuff. The kind of music you need to go to college to dissect, analyze and learn. It's a master craft, held to be lofty in its aims, and as such is, generally speaking, the province of the monied classes. Its history goes back far enough to suggest that it has always been here, that it represents the high point of Western civilization's artistic capabilities.
Rock 'n' roll is the scruffy kid from the other side of the tracks, a raw, primal, leering beast of a bad apple more interested in exercising its libido than its propensity for fine art.
So goes the conventional wisdom, anyway. But in truth, rock music wasted little time proceeding directly from a blues- and country-based "working class" essence -- simple music, celebrating simple pleasures at high volume, a disposable pop art -- to an overtly ambitious, grandiose form of sound manipulation seeking to encompass every style and idiom it could lay its grubby hands on. Recall that, after all, the trip from "Rock Around the Clock" and "All Shook Up" to "Sgt. Pepper" and "Pet Sounds" only took about a decade to make.
>Oil and water
As rock musicians began writing their own material, rather than exploiting the songs of underground black musicians, reinterpreting standards or even grabbing pieces from theatrical musicals, rock music quickly began to take itself seriously.
Part of the reason for this is that self-sufficient groups were much more likely to survive past what had long been accepted as the pop idol's sell-by date. Singing lovelorn bits of nonsense to swooning teens can get pretty old pretty quick. By the time the Beatles were hearing Bob Dylan for the first time, and pushing the envelope with subsequent albums like "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver," it had become an inevitability that progressive rock would soon rear its bespectacled head. Within a few years, pop songs were becoming orchestrated song-suites, mini-operas and concept albums.
Once the floodgates were opened, "anything goes" became the mantra. From the late '60s until punk came along to return the primal edge to rock, the music enjoyed a heady, imaginative run -- marred, naturally, by some seriously overblown, ill-conceived flights of fancy.
Here's a brief rundown of some of the most prominent purveyors of the rock/classical union, from the best to the worst, as well as some strong efforts that fall in between. Bear in mind that rock succeeded in elevating itself when it brought an orchestral, symphonic scope to its own table, rather than simply tossing some strings atop arrangements that had about as much to do with classical music as chocolate does with cheese.
From the stern chamber group stylings of "Eleanor Rigby" to the exotic, Indian classical overtones of "Within You Without You," no rock artists have been more successful at making "serious" rock music than the Beatles. Most tellingly, the band didn't need an orchestra, or even a string section, to make music of classical scope. Check "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" or "Because," from "Abbey Road's" side two suite. Both of these tunes have classical harmonic structures.
Rather than forcing classical into bed with rock, Zappa went straight for the jugular, entering a world where he was clearly not welcome. Zappa was famous as a rock musician, but his true passion was his own classical music, which he furiously and meticulously notated and attempted to conduct himself. He met great resistance, as he hilariously noted in his autobiography, "The Real Frank Zappa Book," from symphony orchestras from California to London. He even worked with our own BPO, "renting" them out in the early '70s to rehearse new compositions. Zappa eventually grew so frustrated with the world of symphony orchestras that he sought refuge in the Synclavier, a keyboard-computer interface that allowed him to perform all of the symphony's parts himself. Check out Zappa's "Strictly Genteel" (Rykodisc) for an overview of his classical compositions.
>The Beach Boys
"Pet Sounds" is a fine example of symphonic music without the symphony. Like a musical savant, Brian Wilson brought his obsession with Phil Spector's near-classical "wall of sound" productions into his world of sunny harmonies and dense chord construction. "Caroline No" and "You Still Believe in Me" are classical music, to be sure.
Working with arranger -- and former husband to Yoko Ono -- Tony Cox, the band that would become synonymous with '70s progressive rock excess cut the multifaceted, endlessly fascinating "Time and a Word" prior to making it big. This collection of songs still stands as one of the most successful fusions of classical and rock.
Pete Townshend attempted to employ the Who as a composer would a symphony orchestra on the the two overtly ambitious, mostly brilliant albums "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia." John Entwistle's brass arrangements elevated Townshend's songs. Again, these two pieces are great examples of rock being "orchestral" without the benefit of an orchestra.
Tull mastermind Ian Anderson moved quickly from blues reductivism to Celtic folk, rock and classical hybrids. "Thick as a Brick" was Monty Python meets Elizabethan music. "Heavy Horses" employed the arranging talents of conductor David Palmer to great effect, deepening the Celtic/classical fusion. The band is still up to its old tricks, as its recent show in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts with classical violinist Lucia Micarelli -- and Anderson's recent symphonic solo record -- made plain.
Composed by keyboardist Jon Lord and conducted by the sympathetic and enthusiastic Malcolm Arnold, "Concerto for Group and Orchestra" captures the late-'60s meeting of the acid-blues of the mighty Deep Purple and the London Symphony Orchestra. It is still one of the most vital and successful examples of the "oil and water" dichotomy.
There are probably hundreds of examples of what can go horribly wrong when rock and classical meet, but "S & M" is the most offensive I've encountered. Metallica with strings? Good lord, why? Here, under the direction of the clearly talented Michael Kamen, the orchestra simply grinds away at Metallica's Sturm und Drang, toward an end result that is decidedly Spinal Tap.
WHAT: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra performing the music of Led Zeppelin with Randy Jackson
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Kleinhans Music Hall, Symphony Circle
INFO: 885-5000, (800) 699-3168 or www.bpo.org
TICKETS: $35 to $55 (box office, Tickets.com)