Subject: Maestro Steven Mercurio
Credentials: Short list - has conducted the Three Tenors, plus operas by every relevant artist from Verdi to Tchaikovsky to Puccini.
Assignment: Along with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, help transform the music of Sting - both solo and with The Police - from mere pop-music classics to an uplifting orchestral experience.
Obstacle: Not at all familiar with Sting's music.
Mercurio talked to Miami.com about learning about Sting's music, just how the Police frontman got involved, and which other pop legend Mercurio might want to work with afterward.
How did this tour come about? Who conceived it?
Well, everything comes from Sting wanting to do what he wants to do. A year and a half ago, he was a guest on a concert with the Chicago Symphony, but that was with an extremely large orchestra, with mixed results. He got excited about the idea of doing a project with an orchestra, but not sounding exactly like that, because the orchestra was sort of overwhelming - it was bascially an orchestra concert of his music with him as a guest. And the arrangers were given free reign to create, and some of the results were good and some of them needed to be reigned in.
So how is the tour going so far?
Oh, it's great - we're having a ball. It's a lot of work, though, to shape these songs to the size orchestra we wanted to use, so that both worlds can exist on an equal plane. It is truly a 50-50 partnership - at times, the pop element leads a little bit, and at times the orchestra leads, during certain pieces like "Moon Over Bourbon Street" or "Russians," which are more orchestrally based. And then some are perfectly balanced, like "Desert Rose." We're thrilled.
You've worked with classical giants such as Pavarotti and Bocelli. What's it like working with Sting?
We're having a great time, I mean, he's musical. He's a storyteller by nature, and his songs are not always in the first person, like talking about things or situations, so it has a theatrical bent to it. And on some of the more romantic ones, like "Why Should I Cry For You?", to have real strings as opposed to synthesized strings, really envelop and luxuriate. Or "Englishman in New York" - instead of having the keyboard sort of doing "oompah-oompah," you have the strings doing pizzicato with the clarinet. So some of the pieces adapt easily to what we're doing, and to him it's a wonderful experience to hear these pieces transformed.
So he's pretty open to suggestion?
Totally! This was a team effort between himself, me and the master arranger/coordinator Rob Mathis. Some pieces needed to be reduced, and some needed to be rethought and rewritten, but we had the time and we were a team - everyone's voice was heard. And with zero controversy.
Was it more difficult to transform new-wave Police songs such as "Roxanne" and "Next to You," as opposed to his later solo work?
Um, I would say yeah. Rob did a great job with that. "Next to You" really rocks - it's just strings and percussion and it just cranks. We did it on the "Tonight Show" and just had a ball. "Roxanne" is probably the one that's most reconceived. It's much more of a ballad, and much less of a screamer. He wanted to sing that one, and luxuriate in it a little bit. But some of the others - "King of Pain," for example - you would think that that would be impossible, but that one just gets people up out of their seats. It's a joyful experience.
Were you a fan of The Police in their heyday?
Didn't know them at all.
Really? Did this tour introduce you to their music?
Yeah, totally. I only knew of Sting in a very vague, generic way, as more of his persona than his music. Maybe I'd heard "Fields of Gold" and would recognize that, but none of the others, really. I was too busy conducting my own music. But they came to me because I have done other crossover projects. I like doing those, bringing music to a mass public. A lot of these people are not orchestra people, but they do leave the concert going, "Wow, that was great!" And maybe they'll go to a symphony concert or two, because they don't have the fear of an orchestra any more - they get turned on by it. Once they realize it's to be enjoyed rather than just sitting on their hands, they're dancing in the aisles.
Have you thought about whom you might want to work with next, or have you not gotten that far yet?
[Laughs] I haven't gotten that far, but I have a wish list of people. This experiment was pulled off so successfully - it's not a pop concert or a rock concert with a thousand-and-one violins in the background, which people have done - that I'm hoping it'll be a template for other people who can deserve this treatment. Off the top of my head, I think Elton John would be wonderful, because he has his Broadway songs, he has "Your Song" and his early songs, which do have strings. In concert, he has a synthesizer playing it. And I think a lot of his ballads would fit into this situation very, very well, with the right five-piece rock band also attached to it, as we have.
Sting, Steven Mercurio (conductor) & Rob Mathes (Music Director). Photo: Clive Barda