My curiosity was piqued when I heard that the Brian Setzer Orchestra would be releasing an album made up entirely of big-band swing versions of famous classical compositions. I mean, just the concept alone raises a lot of questions, such as: If you listen to it closely enough, will you be able to hear Leonard Bernstein angrily smacking on the top of the coffin with his baton?
Sometimes I find myself wondering, what is it about me that I can’t truly appreciate classical music? Is it a gene thing? Did Mozart make a rude gesture at me during a past life? As a small child, was I frightened by an oboe? It’s a mystery.
Regardless, I can’t seem to listen to it for more than a few minutes at a time without my mind wandering and my vision starting to glaze over — sort of like when I try to listen to BBC Radio on NPR, which on more than one occasion has caused me to almost drive into a ditch. Not that I don’t think classical has its time and place, such as during that scene in “Die Hard” when they open the giant safe. I’m not a complete philistine.
So I admit my curiosity was piqued when I heard that the Brian Setzer Orchestra would be releasing an album made up entirely of big-band swing versions of famous classical compositions. I mean, just the concept alone raises a lot of questions, such as: If you listen to it closely enough, will you be able to hear Leonard Bernstein angrily smacking on the top of the coffin with his baton?
ON THE WEB: Hear 'Wolfgang's Big Night Out'
I should mention that I happen to be a big Setzer fan, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that, like George Costanza in that classic “Seinfeld” episode, he seems determined to always do the exact opposite of what would make sense to have a successful music career. In the ’80s, when synth-driven new wave was the rage, he got famous doing rockabilly, a genre that didn’t even really catch on the first time. Then in the ’90s, at the height of the grunge era, he struck it big with a 17-piece swing orchestra. As for his 2000s output, I can state unequivocally that at least one of his recordings features yodeling. Yodeling!
So of course I got the new album (“Wolfgang’s Big Night Out,” released Sept. 25), and guess what? I love it. It’s probably the only album ever to combine Beethoven, Mozart and Offenbach with big-band arrangements, rockabilly guitar, licks swiped from everything from Deep Purple to “Dixie” and a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that sounds like it could have been the theme song to a ’70s James Bond movie. Yes, I found all those to be good things.
But since my tastes might not match up with those of the average music lover, I decided to ask my friend and co-worker Gary Freeman — who has covered classical music for North Shore Sunday — to listen to “Wolfgang” and weigh in. Basically, I wanted to know if this music would make a real classical aficionado shrivel up and disintegrate, like a vampire in daylight.
But to my surprise Gary said that although a “purist” might be a tad horrified, anyone with a sense of humor would have to admire it for its musicality alone. “You really have to appreciate how he adheres to the rules in many cases,” Gary says. “He follows sonata form, which is a shock.” I’m not sure what that means, but I don’t think it has anything to do with yodeling.
Gary did take issue with a few tracks where Setzer actually applies lyrics, specifically turning Greig’s “Hall of the Mountain King” into a “cutesy little love song” (“Not with Peer Gynt!,” Gary admonishes). Setzer also adapts Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” as “Honey Man,” but Gary says he didn’t find that one quite as offensive: “At least he alludes to honey,” he notes. Although it’s probably still good that Rimsky-Korsakov has been dead since 1908.
So given that I have Gary’s seal of approval, I can now without compunction encourage everyone to buy a copy of “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out” — one, because you’re guaranteed to get a tremendous kick out of it, but also because we’ve got to encourage this man to keep recording or suffer the consequences. Without Brian Setzer doing his wacky genre-bending thing, there’s more of a chance that eventually every record released will sound like either Nickelback or James Blunt. James Blunt!
As for me, I’d go so far as to say that “Wolfgang” has changed the way I think about classical music. I might even go and seek out the traditional versions of these compositions, so I can listen to them and see how they stack up to Setzer’s swingabilly renditions.
Just not while I’m driving.
Peter Chianca is a CNC managing editor and the brains behind “The At Large Blog” (chianca-at-large.blogspot.com) and “The Shorelines Blog” (blogs.townonline.com/shorelines). To receive At Large by e-mail, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line “SUBSCRIBE.”