I like going along to the orchestra, and if you’re a taxpayer then you should like going along to see them too – or you should go anyway, even if you don’t like it because you’re paying for it. But what is with this epidemic of matching up an average Kiwi act with the orchestra all to milk a bit of money and allow people who would normally never pay to see an orchestra the chance to boast that they “got some culture last night!”
It’s one of the worst things about being a music reviewer. And I blame that ENZSO gig. That seemed to be the big starter.
I mean, sure, I go back to my collection and see that I’ve never done away with Deep Purple’s Concerto For Group and Orchestra LP – even though it’s fucking atrocious. But you see, as a young kid, turned on to the sound of Deep Purple I was excited at the notion of a rock band and orchestra playing together. Until I finally found the album and heard it. Good grief! So ENZSO was not the start of it, but it seems to have started the local epidemic.
The original ENZSO show seemed like a good idea – I didn’t see it, but I had the CDs. And at least the songs were reworked, rearranged, recreated to fit the feel of the orchestra.
Since then I’ve had to attend Goldenhorse with an orchestra, Dave Dobbyn with an orchestra, Salmonella Dub with an orchestra…Shapeshifter with an orchestra…none of these shows has been as good as seeing those artists without an orchestra. But if there are strings attached, as is the case, you can charge a whole lot more. And Lady SavBlanc and Lord Syrah of Kelburn can rattle their jewellery in the direction of a rock band – oh, how decadent! – and then tell the maid the next day that they were in fact at “a recital” even.
I think perhaps the absolute worst was Salmonella Dub – here was a band that, at one point anyway, was actually pretty good. Lively too. And then here with the orchestra they just folded away the dancehall feel, packed up the dub, and let flailing violins iron out any remaining reggae kinks. What we got, instead, was a very boring set of soundscapes, the sort of thing you expect to hear at Te Papa when walking through an exhibition where papier-mâché Kiwis trundle along on clunky skateboard wheels, a gust of the Once Were Warriors soundtrack blowing cold across the waft of the orchestra.
It was depressing.
But then, it was also depressing to hear Shapeshifter play with the orchestra and have each song longer by four minutes with a two minute string intro and a two minute horn conclusion. Shapeshifter are truly horrendous of course and have now become a laughing stock to anyone capable of actually discerning music, so their stint with the orchestra was still in fact some sort of high-water mark.
Ditto, Goldenhorse were not terrible with the orchestra – they became terrible when they tried to release more than one album. But their outing with strings and things did serve to show the redundancy of a group of talented musicians with, essentially, very little to say.
Bic Runga sounded gorgeous sure, and she pulled out some covers – a few interesting moments, but then we had Boh Runga with an orchestra. It’s a bit like following champagne with a diet coke.
And so, all too quickly, this orchestra-with-band gig thing is so clearly just a nasty money-maker.
Worse than that though is the idea that it buys the artist/s credibility.
You see it’s fundamentally flawed, for the two acts are working at cross purposes. The band or solo artist, the featured guest from the pop/rock/reggae and, er, “roots” world is trying to appeal to a wider audience, to show off a mature musical approach; essentially the band wants to be taken more seriously. And the other band involved (that’s the orchestra, or truncated version, a string section say, or small choir, horns and strings) wants to similarly widen its appeal, to seem more hip; to branch out by adding orchestral flirtations (that don’t really belong) to tunes from the dance, rock or pop world. And to fulfil their mandate, to secure another round of funding, to tally up enough shows for the year. You see some of those horn players and they’re dead behind the eyes as they stare at the score, glance at their watch, wonder when in the fuck this will ever be over.
Luckily the bland old middle-NZ concert-goer loves it a bit of pop-the-cork class; a bit of the ole that’ll-do-let’s-call-it-culture. So these ugly, unnecessary gigs will continue. I see, most recently, Eddie Rayner of Split Enz organised a new version of ENZSO. No Judd, no Finns, just a bunch of ringers. What really is the point in that? Now, don’t get me wrong, Rayner is a talented arranger, player and producer and he needs to make a buck. But this really is the thin end of the wedge – just with strings attached.
Of course there’s the DVD, the CD, the branded hoodies, all these ugly, unnecessary things that come from pop musicians wanting to be taken seriously, from orchestra members hopeful to seem hip. It’s ghastly. At best it’s redundant – which is to say you barely notice the swell of the orchestra around the pop tunes. That was the case when Dave Dobbyn played his set with the top brass. The best bits were – always – when you just heard Dobbyn singing a good song well.
You get the feeling that suckers with money won’t be prepared to take any New Zealand act seriously unless they’ve played a show with the symphony orchestra – The Sympathy Orchestra more likely. But actually we need to take a stand, if anything we need to be saying the opposite. That your career is over, you’ve run fresh out of ideas, you’re fucked, you’re nothing, you’re hopeless and you’re basically a dirty scam-merchant when you do sign on to do the gig with the most expensive covers band in the land. The one we all pay for. The one that’s laughing its way through 10-minute rest breaks every hour of rehearsal, nonchalantly adding trills and always so sure to make sure they’re not taking anything resembling a thrill from the occasion.
But every time you hear of one of these shows being announced – there’s a little lightbulb moment. I take it back to when I first heard about Deep Purple’s Concerto album. There’s a tiny moment where you think “this could work” or more optimistically, “this will be really great”. I tell you now it won’t. It’s all a load of shit.