Sting’s Symphonicities: new CD, concerts at the Met

As David Itzkoff reported in the NY Times yesterday, tonight and tomorrow, Sting will be appearing at the most venerable of venues: the Metropolitan Opera House! But instead of being backed by his own band, reuniting with the Police, or even engaging in a revival of his Elizabethan-era lute song collaboration with Edin Karamazov, he will be accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. They will be presenting selections from Sting’s new album Symphonicities.

Sting plus symphony

The Deutsche Grammophon recording reprises Sting’s back catalogue, treating a dozen songs from his work with the Police and as a solo artist to full blown orchestral renditions. Abetted by conductor/arrangers Rob Mathes and Steven Mercurio, Sting refashions some of his biggest hits — Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Roxanne” among them — as well as lesser known songs: “I Hung My Head,” “The Pirate’s Bride,” etc.

Given Sting’s longstanding interest in classical music – his first solo effort included liberal quotations from Prokofiev – and his recent forays into concert repertory – singing Dowland and Schubert, narrating Prokofiev and Schumann – perhaps a symphonic project was inevitable. And some of Symphonicities works quite a bit better than most pop-orchestra collaborations. Those songs which previously included classical instrumentation, such as “Englishman in New York” and “When we Dance,” actually serve to more fully realize the proto-symphonic ambitions of the pop originals to stirring affect. Repertoire from the brooding Soul Cages LP, such as “We Work the Black Seam,” with its darkly hued harmonies and a more expansive formal design than your average pop song, also lend themselves to orchestration.

By now, Sting’s versatility and curiosity are well known. These two traits alone are enough to explain his willingness – some scoffers might say temerity – to tour with a renown orchestra and appear at one of the most important opera houses in the world. But Symphonicities also serves as a reminder of why Sting has in recent years steadily moved away from more straightforward pop ventures and toward crossover projects: to preserve both his voice and his hearing.

In his late fifties, Sting still possesses a suave croon, and the ballad numbers on the DG recording are served well. But he’s no longer entirely comfortable above the staff. Even a bevy of background singers can’t save “Every Little Thing She Does (is Magic)” from sounding strained. On “Roxanne,” Sting abandons the upper register altogether, murkily riffing on the tune in a faux-improv down the octave. Since the song’s clarion – stratospheric – cries were a signature element of its appeal, one cannot help but feel a little let down.

That said, the care with which the music on Symphonicities has been prepared, and the musicality which both singer and ensemble display in abundance, set it a cut above many crossover affairs.

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