It’s the biggest band I’ve ever had,” crowed Sting as he stood in front of London’s Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra at Hollywood Bowl Tuesday night. Can’t dispute that. This gigantic performing apparatus is accompanying the English rock star on his Symphonicity Tour, in which he is vertically, and in some cases, horizontally inflating many of his and the Police’s greatest hits and past obscurities. The question, of course, is whether all of this pomp and circumstance adds anything worth knowing to one of the most durable, literate catalogs in pop music. In some cases, it does. In others, the RPCO seemed merely like a wildly expensive backup combo.
Sting has been methodically seeking to enter the realm of so-called high art for some time. His last two albums were placed on Universal’s once-august Deutsche Grammophon label, as will the next album containing music featured on the tour, “Symphonicities” (due July 13).
The goal of this project is to “reinvent” Sting’s songs with what he calls “a whole new palate of musical colors” — a great idea if you can follow it through. Yet from the evidence of the songs performed on this night — there are several more that are listed in the program and the upcoming CD — Sting’s battalion of 10 arrangers achieved only a partial transformation of his catalogue.
At first, it sounded like much ado about little. In “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” the orchestra had little else to do but play those “footballs” — sustained whole notes — that studio musicians dread. “Englishman In New York” had a clarinetist weaving an approximation of the line that Branford Marsalis did so eloquently on soprano sax on Sting’s sophomore solo album, “Nothing Like the Sun.” Shorn of its reggae gait, “Roxanne” was transformed into a mood piece, but not a terribly interesting one.
At times, you wished that the orchestra would become more active and really transform these songs — and eventually, it happened. For “Russians,” which already includes a tune from Prokofiev’s “Lt. Kije” Suite, arranger Vince Mendoza and conductor Steven Mercurio grafted the grandiose Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” a swatch from Prokofiev’s “Romeo And Juliet” and another “Lt. Kije” paraphrase into an audaciously bellicose, and moving, collage. Nicola Tescari converted “Moon Over Bourbon Street” into a soundtrack for a suspense thriller, with echoes of Bernard Herrmann and maybe a little Schoenberg. An unusual harp/flute/strings intro paved the way for “King Of Pain,” whose odd structure lent itself to a varied, complex Rob Mathes chart. An unreleased 1999 song, “All Would Envy,” was a real discovery, turned into a suave bossa nova by Michel Legrand.
Sting at 58 is in excellent voice and made for a graciously informative host, even reading the coveted Lakers scores. Trumpeter Chris Botti was on hand delivering his trademark relaxed obbligatos in three numbers. The stage was overlooked by a trio of three-dimensional squares that flashed abstract video art and live shots of the musicians. The flamboyantly gesturing Mercurio was a show unto himself.
In general, the arrangements became more adventurous as the concert went on, although the jumbled mix obscured a lot of inner detail. We’ll have to wait for the CD to get a better idea of what’s in some of these charts.