Been a Long Time

Few things send rock fans scrambling for the skip button (and the Maalox) faster than the sound of a symphony orchestra on top of electric guitars. Right? Absolutely. There have been some grievous offenses committed in the name of classical crossovers — "Bohemian Rhapsody," Bat Out of Hell, Metallica's S&M album — but overall, enough time has passed since Guns ‘N' Roses' "Live and Let Die" remake that the idea isn't completely repulsive. Since 2005, the Boston Pops' "Pops on the Edge" series has enlisted the likes of Ben Folds, Decemberists and Nickel Creek to help sell tickets to the young folks, and God knows Arcade Fire's Neon Bible has its Mahleresque moments.

The Houston Symphony, meanwhile, is in for some "Good Times Bad Times" of its own Friday. For about 12 years, Berklee College of Music grad Brent Havens has been arranging and conducting Led Zeppelin's catalog with various U.S. orchestras. Just in case, he brings a band, featuring Robert Plant soundalike Randy Jackson, along for backup. "I didn't think die-hard Zep fans necessarily wanted to see a symphony orchestra playing," Havens told the Press last week. "I thought it would be more attractive if we literally had somebody out there wailing on the vocal parts."

Houston Press: What were some of the challenges in arranging Zeppelin's songs?

Brent Havens: The cool thing about Zep is they have some interesting harmonic structures. I think they were a bit ahead of their time in that, with Jimmy Page doing some multi-triadic stuff with a triad chord over the top of another one. Then rhythmically, doing some unusual material, where he'll play a 7/8 bar and the very next bar will be a 3/8 bar, and then a 4/4 bar.

HP: Are those things comparable to any orchestral music?

BH: Yeah. One of my favorite composers, Prokofiev, uses a great deal of meter changes, and in terms of harmonic structure, he's out there a little bit. Same with Stravinsky, to the point where they had riots because it was so dissonant and unusual.

HP: Besides "Kashmir" and maybe "Immigrant Song," which songs mesh best with an orchestra?

BH: "I'm Gonna Crawl," which is a blues tune and actually started out with a Mellotron, or whatever that synthesizer thing John Paul Jones was using. I transcribed that exactly as he played it and it works beautifully. "All My Love," because that starts out with just strings. Going into the chorus, the orchestra just soars way over the top of the band, which I thought translated really, really well.

HP: Any you had to steer clear of?

BH: There are a number of tunes that areÉepics [laughs]. They're ten or 11 minutes long. Some of those epics we don't really get a chance to do because we want to try to get as much in as we can during the time we have. Also, some songs are a little too repetitive. They'll be six or seven minutes of pretty much the exact same thing. That gets really difficult to figure out what to do with the orchestra over and over.

The Houston Symphony plays "The Music of Led Zeppelin: A Rock Symphony" at 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 20, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 713-224-7575.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray