Classical Rock

Even passing rock fans know that there's a precedent for mixing classical music and rock. The most obvious example is Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven"; a less successful example would be the entire career of the Electric Light Orchestra. And even if there weren't an established bloodline, anyone who has ever navigated the slow-then-fast overture and second movement of "Stairway to Heaven" at a high-school dance has to admit that Led Zeppelin's music has obvious parallels to the classics.

But what the Colorado Symphony Orchestra has planned for its Friday and Saturday performances goes way beyond what the London Symphony Orchestra was content to do on its 1997 disc Kashmir: Symphonic Led Zeppelin. That project, instead of serving as a respectful Zeppelin tribute, sounds as if it merely added to the catalogue of musical selections for elevators everywhere.

For "The Music of Led Zeppelin," the Colorado Symphony will play backup for an all-out rock band.

"My concept on the whole thing was to really take the music of Led Zeppelin as accurately and as close to the originals as we could and then just add some colors and use a different palette of sounds to enhance what they'd originally done," says conductor/arranger Brent Havens.

"With the violins, the violas, the cellos, the basses, the woodwinds--there are so many colors just among the double-reed instruments--the oboe, the English horn and bassoon," he continues. "Then there's the more pure sound of something like a flute or a clarinet. Add to that the colors of the entire brass section, like the trumpets, trombones, French horns, the lower brass like the bass trombone and tuba, and it's so much to choose from, and that plays along with the colors of a distorted electric guitar and bass and drums."

Havens, a Virginia-based film and TV composer, admits that before he started arranging Zeppelin songs for orchestras, he "didn't really know any of the tunes. Growing up, I did hear their big hits--'Whole Lotta Love,' and obviously, everybody knows 'Stairway to Heaven.' I can't say I was a huge fan, although I'm a much bigger fan now that I've really taken the music apart and studied it and looked at what they were doing."

Once he did that, Havens says, he was surprised by "the sheer genius" of some of Zeppelin's music. "I'm wondering if they actually sat down and said, 'All right, we need a three-eight bar here, or we need to go from four-four to seven-eight and back to...' I don't think so. I think they just banged it out and it worked and it felt good."

The Zeppelin symphony tribute project arose out of a Virginia promoter's efforts to boost orchestra attendance. "We were thinking of just having the orchestra play the music with no rhythm section and no singer, but I didn't think people would be all that interested in hearing a Muzak version of Led Zeppelin," Havens says. But with a band and a lead singer, "the crowds just loved it. They've gone crazy." Reviews of performances with the Atlanta, Jacksonville and Virginia symphony orchestras have reportedly been raves.

Much of the responsibility for that undoubtedly falls on the shoulders of vocalist Randy Jackson. When he's not covering Zeppelin tunes in front of an orchestra, Jackson works as a singer and guitarist for the cock-rock band Zebra, which, in 1983, despite its relative deep obscurity, released Atlantic Records' fastest-selling debut album ever.

"We started in New Orleans in 1975, and we had worked for seven years before we got a record deal, but in that time period, we amassed this huge regional following down South and up in the Northeast," Jackson says. "So when the first record came out, it sold, in the first week I think, 75,000 copies." He doesn't know whether the band ever had a Top 40 single, but it did have a song called "Who's Behind the Door" that "was like the number-two most-played song in the country for about five weeks" on MOR stations. (Jackson says there's a Zebra compilation album slated for release in early November.)

Singing Robert Plant songs in front of a symphony is "very easy," Jackson says. "There's very little stress. I play guitar and sing most of the time with Zebra, so it frees me from the anchor of the guitar. I get to do the frontman thing." There's usually only one rehearsal with the orchestra before a performance, "but when you're dealing with a professional symphony, they nail it."

Considering Havens's commitment to staying true to Zeppelin's music, how closely does Jackson's voice approximate Plant's?

"I actually have a guitar here. I'll do the whole thing for you," Jackson says in response to a request that he sing a few lines of "Ramble On" over the phone from his home in Long Island.

"Leaves are falling all around/It's time I was on my way...," he sings in a competent imitation of Plant, though his tenor is sweeter, his diction much more clean and American.

"We have to make it really clear that, obviously, we're not Led Zeppelin," Havens says earnestly. "One indication that we're not Led Zeppelin was when we did it with the Atlanta Symphony. One of the horn players is a huge Led Zeppelin fan, and there was an article in the newspaper quoting him saying, 'I'm not sure this should be happening; it's like messing with Mozart.' After the show he came up to me and said, 'This is just unbelievable. This is nothing like what I imagined it was going to be. I thought it was going to be cheesy.'"

--C.J. Janovy

"The Music of Led Zeppelin," 7:30 p.m. October 2-3, Boettcher Concert Hall, 14th and Curtis streets in the Plex, 303-830-8497.

 
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