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A Chat With: Famed Police drummer Stewart Copeland on World Premiere of "Ben Hur" at Virginia Arts Festival


04 Apr 2014

Stewart Copeland

On April 19, Stewart Copeland of the iconic 80ís rock band The Police, will debut his new score for the epic 1925 silent film "Ben-Hur" as part of the Virginia Arts Festival.

In addition to being one of the greatest drummers of all time, Stewart Copeland is also an accomplished composer. On Saturday, April 19 at 8:00pm, Copeland will perform the world premiere of his score with the Virginia Arts Festival Orchestra, conducted by Richard Kaufman. The performance will take place at Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, Virginia. Tickets range from $20-65, and can be purchased online at vafest.org or by phone at 877-741-2787. Group tickets (groups of 15 or more) are available; please call 757-282-2819. This performance is one of the many exciting arts experiences in the 18th season of the Virginia Arts Festival, which begins April 2 and goes through May 29, 2014.

Your composition of a new score for the epic 1925 silent film Ben-Hur score is quite an accomplishment. What made you originally decide to take on the project? Why Ben-Hur?

In 2009 I wrote the music for a European arena production of General Lew Wallace’s novel BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST. When the show finished it’s run in 2011 I felt that the symphonic score deserved a life of its own and was looking forward to recreating on stage the joy that I had had playing my drums with that big orchestra.

While organizing the music for concert performance the kernel of an idea took hold. I had seen Fred Niblo's classic 1925 film of this famous story and had been overwhelmed by its scale. Taking another look at the ancient silent film I could see that I had music for almost all of the scenes, characters and plot lines. Thus began a dual process of carving both music and picture into a concert with principal scenes from the gigantic movie. It turns out that the main story of the saga can be told in ninety minutes – which is about as long as a sensible concert should be.

On April 19, you will join the Virginia Arts Festival Orchestra for the world premiere of this work. How did you initially become involved with the Virginia Arts Festival? What will the rehearsal process be like?

I was born in Virginia but was dragged off to Egypt and beyond when I was two months old. Watching “The Virginian”, dubbed into Arabic on Beirut TV was the closest I got to my home state. So this is a big homecoming and I was glad that the Virginia Art Festival was the first orchestra to invite me in with this piece.

Having commissioned the work they have been generous with rehearsal time and set-up resources to get this rather complex animal onto the stage. The great thing about orchestral music is that it’s all on the page. Put the chart on the stand; count it in, and a mass of musicians surge forward together. But synchronizing the performance to the beats of the film, and balancing the clattering rhythms with the sweet strings will take a little extra effort and I’m very glad of the festival’s indulgence.

Can you please tell us a bit about the process of composing for this particular film – as opposed to another film- or composing a piece in general?

The story is set the Levant, where I grew up so there is a strong oriental flavor to the score and there is an Arabian rhythm that prevails throughout. There are exotic performances on strange double reed or single string instruments that I recorded in Istanbul for the arena show, and which will be played back with the orchestra.

To create this version of the movie, Warner Brothers kindly released the original film to strike a new digitized print. It took almost two weeks to defrost the eighty-year-old celluloid, last seen fifty years ago when it was telecinied to video.

Fred Niblo’s original film, BEN HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST is two hours and twenty minutes long. It was shot at twenty frames per second, which is an extinct technology now and the frame is an odd, almost square shape – also extinct. Much of the black and white movie was tinted with various background colors and there were even a few shots with an early form of color film – mostly in scenes with religious import. Curating these images has been a deeply engrossing mission

When did you first begin composing? How have you honed and developed this skill over the years?

In my earliest memories there was always a river of music going through my head. My father had me in music lessons of one kind or another right from the start but it took a lifetime to gradually develop the skills to get that music into the material world. It started with the hands on anything that would make a sound. My father’s trumpet didn’t stick but the snare drum did, then the guitar. Just those two elements gave me one heck of a career in music! But there was still that river of more richly textured stuff whirling around my brain. Can’t do that with a band. At some point the music in the mind exceeded the ability of my hands and that’s when the composing started.

You have worked in both the rock and classical musical worlds. Can you please share how your personal process differs between the two worlds?

Orchestral music is all about doing your homework and rock music is about thinking on your feet. It’s nice to hang with the orchestral players but there’s not too much to discuss – it’s all on the page. Organizing band music is a lengthy negotiation, a collaboration in which each player gets to make up his own part. You just have to choose the right guys. The orcs are unified by the score and rockers are unified by the groove. Orcs connect to the music with their eyes and rockers connect with their ears. Rockers don’t read and orcs don’t count. How do you get the guitarist to turn his volume down? Put a sheet of music in front of him. How do you get an orchestra from FFF to PPP? Take the chart away. I could go on all day…

Please tell us a bit about how you first began to immerse yourself in the classical world.

My first film score was for a film called Rumblefish, directed by Francis Coppola. In typical Francis style he had Michael Smuin, the director of the San Francisco Ballet create the street gang battle scenes. Michael invited me to write a ballet for his company and I assumed that meant orchestra so wrote a bunch of music on a computer, handed the result to a violin player that I knew, and showed up in San Francisco with an orchestral score of sorts. Most of it was disastrous but just the few bars that worked were enough to set me on a journey that has taken me through four operas, several concerti and a couple more ballets.

The craft came via my day job as a working stiff film composer. Twenty years before the mast creating every kind of music known to man dragged me into modalities that I had never dreamed of, the best of which was working with orchestra. I’m not even sure what “classical” means these days but the orchestra is a mighty instrument that is capable of great power and emotional versatility. Brahms, Ravel and Adams have created eternal masterpieces with it but I know there are still more new things that seventy guys can do to rock the joint.





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