Friday, August 6th 2004_

News Menu Button Crossover artists play to a harmonic confusion

August 6, 2004

By OLIN CHISM / The Dallas Morning Newsc

The Three Bs used to symbolize classical music. But Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are being muscled out by names many concertgoers wouldn't even recognize. Take Billboard magazine's list of "top classical albums." Nos. 10, 11 and 15 are by the Klazz Brothers, André Rieu and Tim Janis. Yes, that's the classical list.

  Josh Groban


European flaovored romantic ballads in three languages -- Italian, English and

French -- with lush orchestrations and subtle sound effects. Violinist Joshua Bell contributes to one track

Olin Chism

If you move to the "classical crossover" chart, you find Josh Groban and Hayley Westenra at the top and, further down, Bond, an all-female "string quartet" that would put the audience in shock if the a metro symphony orchestra dared book them for a subscription concert.

Traditional classical still hangs in there, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Joshua Bell leading the way. In fact, Mr. Ma has three entries in the two charts. He heads the classical list (he's been there for weeks) and he has two albums on the crossover chart.

It's easy to see all this as merely a matter of marketing or cynical exploitation. But there seems to be something deeper involved, a breaking down of barriers that has classical musicians moving into what used to be pop territory and pop musicians nibbling around the edges of the classical pie. The world of music is changing, and the result may be something the Three Bs would hardly recognize.

"Crossover" is one label applied to this change. In some circles, it's a cuss word, but the idea has its defenders even among classical musicians. One thing for sure: It has an audience, which is quite distinct from and generally younger than traditional classical audiences.

Crossover is an amorphous term covering several styles of music. Its most popular practitioners, such as Mr. Groban and Ms. Westenra, as well as longtime favorites such as Andrea Bocelli and Charlotte Church, perform music that's more easily defined by what it's not: not rock, rap, soul, not quite opera or art song, either.

They have pleasant voices and sing pretty melodies backed by lush orchestrations heavy on strings or electronically generated simulations of strings.

  Yo-Yo Ma  

Obrigado Brazil

The world's most famous cellist joins a small group of friends for an hour and 12 minutes of atmospheric Brazilian music, often highly rhythmic but sometimes pensive as well.

Aside from Mr. Bocelli, who relies heavily on opera for his material, connections to classical music are often hard to find. Those who approach the genre from the classical side, such as Mr. Ma and Mr. Bell, often perform folk-flavored or world music or music coming out of films.

However they're tagged, classical and crossover represent only a small portion of the total recordings sold. Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard, says that a classical album needs to sell 3,000 to 7,000 copies a week to make No. 1 on the classical chart, with 4,000 being the average. For crossover, it's 3,500 to 7,000 a week, with 4,500 being the average.

Yet 6,000 copies a week will barely land you on Billboard's Top 200 list of all recordings released, which is probably the magazine's most-quoted chart.

But Mr. Mayfield says that these figures don't tell the complete story. A new recording by Mr. Bocelli or Mr. Ma can easily move out of the range. Mr. Ma has been well into the Top 200 several times.

The driving forces behind crossover are both artistic and economic, according to Peter Gelb, president of Sony Classical, a major force in the movement.

"It was born out of necessity," he says of his company's shift in recording philosophy. "Because the classical music repertory had been recorded over and over and over again, it was not surprising that the audience would diminish. Eventually, it reached the point where the pure economics of recording, say, a Beethoven symphony yet again for the 2,000th time, made little sense.

"And not only from the economic but from the artistic point of view. There's little reason to record another Beethoven symphony other than to satisfy the ego of a conductor who feels left out because his or her Beethoven is not on disc." Mr. Gelb figures that during the course of a single year perhaps only "three or four or five or six new recordings of the standard repertory are wonderful additions" to the record catalogues.

"Given that, I have tried to work with artists who are excited by the challenges of reaching into areas that might not have been approached decades ago but seem natural in today's world."

This has meant projects such as Mr. Ma's exploration of the music of South America,

  Hayley Westenra


Ms. Westenra's pure and distinctive soprano is heard in a variety of pieces including a hymn, a number from Carmina Burana and Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess outfitted with words. Backing by a small combo and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Appalachia and Asia's "Silk Road"; Mr. Bell's unusually varied recorded repertoire; and violinist Lara St. John's jazzed-up Bach arrangements.

It's hard to think of a classical violinist who has ranged wider than Mr. Bell. He's featured on one track of Josh Groban's Closer, which has been the nation's top-selling crossover album for 32 weeks. He has recorded with banjo player Béla Fleck and bluegrass artist (and classical musician) Edgar Meyer. He has played John Corigliano's soundtrack for the movie The Red Violin, as well as the concerto developed from the film. And of course he's at home in the standard classics.

Mr. Bell admits to a momentary "bit of trepidation" about the Closer project: "I thought, 'People are going to think it's strange.' It didn't feel wrong to do it, but you have to worry about what people think.

"But then I thought a couple of things: First, that I shouldn't care too much. It was something I wanted to do and I thought it would be fun. Second, I wasn't the first person to do it. Heifetz -- my ideal -- once recorded 'White Christmas.' I don't think he thought twice about it. I think we have to not worry so much about things like that."

Mr. Bell thinks that crossover -- a term he doesn't much like -- can have positive effects for classical music. "When I got to know [Josh Groban] and the peoople who like his music, I realized that a large number of people who buy his records would be interested in classical records but don't know where to start.

"I've got lots of e-mails from people who have heard of me through the record and have gotten more into classical music because of it.

"My latest album, Romance of the Violin, was intended really for listeners who want to get their feet wet listening to classical music. It was intended as a sort of starting point. Not every album has to be for everyone." Romance of the Violin contains arrangements of a number of beautiful melodies from opera and other classical sources.Crossover is a fairly new label, but the idea goes back a long way. Even in the 1400s and even in church, highbrow music and the popular culture mixed.

There's a hidden link to that past in a recent work by British composer Karl Jenkins, who wrote the famously haunting theme for a DeBeers diamond commercial in the mid-1990s. His composition The Armed Man -- A Mass for Peace is a reference to "L'Homme Armé," a popular 15th-century French song that was incorporated into numeroous old settings of the Catholic Mass.

Mr. Bell points out that Mozart included some popular tunes of his day in his violin concertos. We don't recognize them now because they are no longer on the charts. Brahms and Dvorák arranged folk music, Bartók collected it. Schoenberg wrote cabaret songs.

But the 20th century was a divisive time in music, and formidable barriers between popular and art music arose -- until crossover began to breach them.

One person who is unusually qualified to address the phenomenon is Dr. Richard Littlefield, an assistant professor of music theory at Central Michigan University at Mount Pleasant. Dr. Littlefield has been on both sides of the fence. Before becoming an academic, he was a guitarist and songwriter for many years in Los Angeles studios and Las Vegas showrooms. He has worked with Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and John Mellencamp.

Dr. Littlefield has a provocative theory: that it was an alliance of Elvis Presley with Richard Strauss that got the current crossover phenomenon under way.

Dr. Littlefield was in Las Vegas in the late 1960s when Elvis began using the opening of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra as the intro to his shows there. The King was undoubtedly influenced by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured the same music. But the juxtaposition of Elvis and Strauss was even more stark than the pairing of Strauss and space. After that, anything could go with anything.

Even the staff of Billboard magazine, which does a lot of classifying, is sometimes unsure what crossover means. Mr. Mayfield says that, when in doubt, the compilers sometimes simply call stores and ask what section they're putting a particular release in.

The confusion of categories makes for strange bedfellows. On Billboard 's classical list, the Klazz Brothers & Cuba Percussion's Classic Meets Cuba is a collection of instrumental arrangements of classical themes with a heavy Latin beat (sample track title: "Mambozart"); Mr. Rieu's Live in Dublin is a mixture of light classics, pop and simplistic arrangements of classical passages; and Mr. Janis' Beautiful America is a collection of New Age scene pieces by Mr. Janis that are quite remote from the classics.

While the classical crossover list is loaded with gentle vocal music, it also includes the aggressive instrumental music of Bond, which uses heavy amplification, driving rhythms and only the vaguest hint of a connection to classical themes. The featured artists are violinists Haylie Ecker and Eos Chater, violist Tania Davis and cellist Gay-Yee Westerhoff, who contribute mainly sexy bodies and pretty faces. Whatever sounds they may produce are buried under an electronic avalanche.

  Béla Fleck & Edgar Meyer

Music for Two

Mr. Fleck, who plays astonishing banjo plus guitar, and Mr. Meyer, who plays string bass and piano, start off with something called "Bug Tussle" and segue into Bach. It's all Bach and fun, including "Wrong Number," when a persistent cellphone joins the show.

Dr. Littlefield thinks that there is a kind of mutual admiration society among classical and rock-pop musicians, with each side often unaware of the other's interest.

He says that more rock and pop musicians are attracted to classical music than many people realize. The attraction extends not only to the music but to its performers.

"From my 15 years in the studio, I can tell you that they admire classical musicians no end. They think they're God." The skills that classical musicians possess, including the ability to read music, put them in awe, Dr. Littlefield says.

Reasons vary for the attraction to pop for classical artists. "Most of them are just kind of intellectually curious," Dr. Littlefield says. They may also envy the skills that pop musicians possess, including the ability to play by ear and improvise. "So many classical players can play anything if there are notes on a piece of paper in front of them, but they can't make music unless it's written down."


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