If Beethoven and Mozart were the pop superstars of their day, and the melodies of Lennon and McCartney are destined to survive for centuries, then it was only a matter of time before classic rock and classical music collided in one loud sonic boom. Across America, as local symphonies look to stem the tide of declining audiences, it's not unusual to find sellout shows for a pops series or even (heaven forbid) "A Leded Evening of Symphonic Zeppelin."
So it's no surprise that a concept like the British Rock Symphony would eventually come to pass. Ambitious even by jaded concert-goer standards, the two-hour-plus show orchestrally recasts the familiar hits of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. (What? No Herman's Hermits?) Performing on-stage in Houston will be a 60-piece orchestra from England, a large children's choir from a New York City housing project, a full rock band from Los Angeles, and five revolving vocalists, including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Who frontman Roger Daltrey. Suffice it to say, it's safe to leave your tux and tails at home.
"It's not going to be a stuffy, schmaltzy show. The orchestra is like a giant rock band," says Daltrey via a recent conference call. "Classical music right now is dying on its feet, and there's no music education in schools anymore. I haven't got anything to prove in music anymore, but I wanted to do this and expose people to as much different music as possible. It will be great to hear all those songs played in a different way."
And for the most part, a recent appearance by the British Rock Symphony on Good Morning America seemed to bear that out. Daltrey's latest take on "Pinball Wizard" and a no-name vocalist's wistful rendition of "Ruby Tuesday" benefited from the stringy enhancement. The one low point came on a tepid version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II," with the children's choir singing the "we don't need no education" part to anemic effect. (Such are the sacrifices in the name of art and commerce.) Other songs on the British Rock Symphony bill include "Imagine," "Come Together," "Blackbird," "Satisfaction," "Start Me Up," "Comfortably Numb" and, of course, "Stairway to Heaven."
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Daltrey -- who stresses that he is simply one vocalist on the bill (though by far the biggest name) -- has already had some experience in this relatively new area, touring as a solo artist in front of an orchestra and performing in symphonic presentations of the Who rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia. BRS musical director Keith Levenson has also worked with Daltrey on both a previous orchestra tour and The Wizard of Oz in Concert.
While Daltrey is tackling such classic Who numbers as "Who Are You?," "My Generation" and "See Me, Feel Me" with the British Rock Symphony, he's also looking forward to taking on the material of others. "I'd be a bit nervous about attempting a Robert Plant song, I've never been a heavy metal singer," he says. "But I'm [more comfortable] doing the Stones and the Beatles. And I feel connected to all of them because they were all friends of mine. In those days, we used to mix a lot in the clubs and support each other's shows."
When asked why it's generally been the rule here to celebrate the British acts of the '60s and '70s far more than their American counterparts, Daltrey asserts that it may have more to do with geography than with music. "I think you remember us more because we're foreign. We invaded you," he laughs. "But America has had a lot of great bands, too -- I think of the Beach Boys and Nirvana."
Of course, any interview with Daltrey inevitably turns to discussion of the Who and the current state of his often fractious relationship with its leader, songwriter/guitarist Pete Townshend.
"We're on very good terms now; it's a very friendly relationship," he says. "[Townshend]'s working on his [autobiography]. The last time I saw him, he'd been writing for about six months and told me that he'd just gotten to the part where he met me."
As for whether or not there will be any Who projects in the future -- like, say, another ubiquitous "farewell" tour -- Daltrey is guarded but optimistic. "I don't think we'd do anything like [the British Rock Symphony], but we had a great tour last year [for the revamped Quadrophenia]. But whether we do something next year remains to be seen."
Less cloudy than the Who's future is Daltrey's opinion of the Broadway version of their rock opera Tommy. Though it was a massive box-office smash, many Who fans were disappointed with the watered-down adaptation of the tale of the deaf, dumb and blind boy -- especially its new, more upbeat ending. "I hated it. I've never made a secret of that," Daltrey says. "I hated what they did to it. I realized the pressures the [producer] faced, but they adapted Tommy for Broadway when they should have adapted Broadway for Tommy."
When it comes to his involvement in the British Rock Symphony, Daltrey maintains a healthy realism. "I know it's harder to get people out to shows, and they've already seen all the bands," he says. "But there's always room for more music."
Roger Daltrey performs with the British Rock Symphony on Sunday, August 2, at the Houston Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. Showtime is 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 and $40. For info, call 988-1020.
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