'Classical crossover': A label not necessarily to be feared

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010

"I want to play something for you," said our friend, pushing back from the dinner table and going to the CD player. "Guess what this is."

Through the haze of food and wine came angular, jagged, insistent string music. Clearly a contemporary work. Clearly a string quartet. It didn't seem familiar, though. We listened for a couple of minutes but were stumped.

Turns out it was the Balanescu String Quartet playing an arrangement of a song by the German electronic music band Kraftwerk.

Duped by crossover again.

Crossover music is the elephant in classical music's narrow living room. It takes up an awful lot of space, nobody quite knows what to do with it, and most people see only a piece of the whole.

As a genre, classical crossover, as defined by the Billboard chart, is pretty treacly stuff: the tenor Andrea Bocelli, chanting monks, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma airing his lighter side, the latest film soundtrack, or Katherine Jenkins, the latest pop-soprano star import from Britain (who comes to the Birchmere on Nov. 11). The "crossover" rubric encompasses classical artists trying out pop, like Renée Fleming's indie-rock album "Dark Hope," or rock stars dabbling with orchestras, like Sting's greatest-hits "Symphonicities."

It also makes a lot of money: That crossover Billboard chart reflects much higher sales than the traditional classical one. The genre owes its existence to the runaway success of the Three Tenors, and quasi-operatic spinoffs remain one of its principal branches: Bocelli, Josh Groban, the Canadian Tenors (who were at the Birchmere this weekend).

Yet more and more artists are exploring music outside their traditional boundaries, in ways that are more and more interesting to a discriminating audience. Our friend would never have put a Three Tenors CD on at a dinner party. But the Balanescu Quartet's album "Possessed," which came out in 1992, offered a lot more meat for the ear. In fact, the association with "crossover" -- the juxtaposition of different kinds and styles of music -- may have been a liability; once we knew what it was, we moved on to another topic more readily than we might have had we been told we were listening to, say, music by an obscure Romanian composer.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of crossover music: classical artists exploring other musical genres, and non-classical artists taking the plunge into classical. Each kind runs the gamut from schlocky (remember the rock albums by the German heldentenor Peter Hofmann in the 1980s?) to serious (indie-pop star Sufjan Stevens's orchestral/instrumental work "BQE").

For classical musicians, crossover projects generally imply letting one's hair down: Daniel Barenboim's 1996 "Mi Buenos Aires Querido" is a really fun recording. There's also the appealing prospect of reaching new, and supposedly larger, audiences (a la the Three Tenors). The pianist Christopher O'Riley has become identified with his solo arrangements of songs by Radiohead; he didn't start playing Radiohead to make money, but he's certainly had a bigger success with those songs than in more conventional classical repertory. (His recitals now often include both.)

For non-classical musicians, by contrast, moving into classical music signifies a kind of mastery. Classical music may be dismissed as elitist, but it has not lost its cachet as a kind of ne plus ultra of artistic expression. When Aretha Franklin sings opera arias, the implication is that she's so good she can even do this. (I remember a pop critic friend asking me years ago, when Aretha first sang "Nessun dorma," if it was true that this was one of the very hardest pieces in the world to sing.)

A number of pop artists approach the whole idea of classical music with almost exaggerated reverence. Think of the stiff, almost obedient quality of Billy Joel's solo piano pieces on "Fantasies and Delusions," the CD of his compositions released in 2001. Or consider the deliberate large-scale grandiosity of Paul McCartney's "The Liverpool Oratorio," or Roger Waters's opera "Ça ira." These are Important Works, application for membership in a canon. This past summer, when orchestras around the country played tribute concerts to Michael Jackson on the anniversary of his death, I theorized that the performances acted as a seal of approval, placing Jackson, tacitly, in the pantheon.

Certainly classical music is working to break down boundaries and become less elitist, and I believe music is gradually democratizing. Many young artists work seriously in a number of musical genres without compromising any of them, performing a concerto with orchestra one week and playing bluegrass the next. At the same time, more bodies of music are becoming "classicized," if you will, seen as objects of preservation, study and historically informed revival: Think jazz, think classic Broadway.

Yet the label of elitism persists, in part because it serves a function -- even for classical music lovers. The seal-of-approval aspect works for everyone: Once a work has been identified as classical music, the audience can relax in the safety of knowing that it is good. Plenty of classical concertgoers doze happily through Mozart or Brahms; for some people, it's about beautiful sounds. What the Billboard chart calls classical crossover, by generally providing lush, melodic orchestral music, is simply picking up on the lowest common denominator.

Crossover per se is as meaningless a term as "classical music," encompassing as it does many things of interest and many things that I don't like. But the term, for some, triggers a defensiveness, a need to assert that "our stuff" is better. There's a fear of being sullied by association, and that fear may intensify with the growing awareness of just how tenuous are the boundaries that divide one genre from another.

More than once, I've played an Andrea Bocelli excerpt, without revealing what it was, in public presentations to groups of knowledgeable music-lovers, and a few people always guess that the singer is Pavarotti. (Bocelli does have an awfully pretty voice.) Classical music lovers desperately want to show that they have better taste, they're in the know, their music is better. But often, if you present music with no identification -- as my friend showed us with his Balanescu Quartet CD -- the danger is not that your ears will be sullied but that you might actually like it.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company