There's a deal done between performer and audience when a popular music artist performs with an orchestra. It's a different deal to that done with the orchestra, which dumbs down in return for being cashed up.
At the boofy end of the spectrum, such as the ridiculous rockers Kiss, the understanding is that everything will be booming and bereft of subtlety: wha-hey folks, we're big, biggest and bigger still. At the other end of the spectrum, the understanding is that ''ordinary'' pop songs - and, by association, the performer and the audience - will be given class by the addition of the sound and skill of players from ''serious'' music. Think of it as analogous to a menu calling your sauce jus and your custard creme anglaise.
The problem with this plan is that there are always two potholes that few avoid, even without considering the false notion that a well-written pop song is inherently inferior to other music. The first is that the arrangements tend to favour the simplistic (for example, the massed strings replicating rhythm guitar parts) or the fussy (adding layer upon layer just to show they are there) which merely create a simulacrum of style. The second is that rarely if ever are these songs enhanced or given new perspective by their semi-orchestration, with recreation rather than revolution being the objective.
In his rather awfully named Symphonicities tour with orchestra, Sting, who clearly is not merely phoning in his performances, mostly avoids the first pothole. He does it with arrangements that dabble in 20th century classical motifs and occasionally asks the players to stretch rather than just substitute for guitar/bass/drums. The opening section of 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' and large portions of 'Russians', for example, impress.
He is somewhat less successful in avoiding the second pothole. The bossa nova 'All Would Envy' sounds attractive but what does it add to the original small jazz group arrangement? Much the same question can be asked of 'King Of Pain' and 'When We Dance'. And while the semi-pastoral arrangement of 'Roxanne' is attractive, what is its relationship to the lyrics?
This audience loved the show, not surprisingly. What's not to like when we've all been stroked? (Though I wasn't alone in wondering why the excellent voice of Jo Lawry was so buried in the mix.) But is there something in the fact that after three hours, the best moment might well have been the unscheduled encore of 'Message In A Bottle' done with merely voice and guitar?
© Sydney Morning Herald by Bernard Zuel