Brian Jacobson

NEW! MSO plays Led Zeppelin at the Riverside

By - Dec 11th, 2011 06:32 pm

Windborne Music and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra perform the music of Led Zeppelin on Dec. 10, 2011. Most excellent photos by Erik Ljung.

For certain Led Zeppelin songs, like Kashmir, hiring a proficient orchestra is necessary if you’re going to bring your national cover band to town.  By hiring the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to play with you at the Riverside, you are getting the best.  It’s just too bad you can’t have them elevated on stage or mike the strings section.

With the misnomer of a title—The Milwaukee Symphony plays the music of Led ZeppelinWindborne Music (under conductor/arranger Brent Havens) brings their original ‘classic rock symphony’ to major cities across the U.S. They also have other touring groups that work with local symphonies to present the music of Queen, the Eagles, Michael Jackson, The Who, Pink Floyd, and the Doors.  But it’s the epic songs of the erstwhile New Yardbirds that fueled this particular venture on Saturday night, fronted by skilled guitarist George Cintron, singer/master of ceremonies Randy Jackson, electric violinist Allegra, bassist Dan Clemens, and drummer Powell Randolph.

I had my doubts, but I was interested in the novelty.  In previous years, I’ve gone to see the MSO perform the cartoon music of Carl Stalling and the poppy video game music of Koji Kondo.  I also look forward to some of the 2011-12 novelties the MSO has planned on their own like 007: Bond and Beyond and Abbamania. But it is especially rare to see the nicely dressed and poised musicians usually associated with Bach and Gershwin to attempt the music of Page and Plant.

I frequently observe the whole audience at shows to see just who is coming to them.  In this case it is an important factor; the audience was of varying ages, demographics, backgrounds, and 95% caucasian. But they were all there for two reasons—either they sorely regret never getting to see a Led Zeppelin show, or they are loyal and appreciative of the local symphony cohorts.  This latter factor was obvious every time Jackson would ask the symphony members to rise after certain numbers and the house would ascend in wild applause.  Some of the symphony musicians faces showed shocked reception, as if the love had not been this apparent.

Now, on to the music itself.  There was a time, before the mid-show intermission, where I wasn’t getting it.  Jackson as a front man could emulate Robert Plant on the higher register wailing but lacked the desired depth and sexual undercurrent.  With no other room to wander other than the first three feet of the stage, he looked a like a tired pacing lion at the zoo.  Without risers, you couldn’t efficiently hear the symphony even as much as you hear them on the original recordings from Led Zeppelin I-IV, Houses of the Holy, and Physical Graffiti.

Wait, did I say songs from Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti? Yes.  Here’s how it worked:  for songs like Stairway to Heaven, the woodwind and strings sections added are obvious.  For Whole Lotta Love, it’s not so obvious.  At certain times, the accompaniment veered into the land of department store muzak.   For The Immigrant Song, it was brilliant.  Overall I found the mix uneven, either being turned off during Black Dog but then entranced during When the Levee Breaks.

The crowd, on the other hand, loved it.  From what I could tell, they didn’t mind the technical glitches caused by one day of rehearsal with the sound board guy or the lead singer sounding more like Axl Rose than Robert Plant. During the intermission in the Mens’ Room, I witnessed a gravelly man in black t-shirt and jeans chat up another elegant man dressed in a long coat and scarf.  “Great concert, eh?”  “Terrific.”

For some, the heartbreaking serenade of Allegra’s violin during Kashmir was enough before venturing out into the land of ice and snow with its midnight sun and the hot springs flow.

Categories: Classical

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