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Prince’s music gets a symphonic makeover with the orchestral show ‘4U’

September 5, 2018 at 7:19 PM

“4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince" reworks the late pop icon’s hits and deep cuts for the orchestral format. (Jed Jacobsohn/)

When Stephen Cook, president of concert promoter TCG Entertainment, went looking for someone to helm the music for a touring symphonic tribute to Prince, there was only one person to call: Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer and leader of the veteran hip-hop (and “Tonight Show”) band The Roots.

“He’s a huge fan of Prince and he knows that music inside and out,” Cook says. “It was so obvious he was the guy for it. He’s taking these songs and arranging them and orchestrating them in a way that is really unique.”

“4U: A Symphonic Celebration of Prince,” which stages its second tour date Saturday at Wolf Trap, reworks the late pop icon’s hits and deep cuts for a 27-piece orchestra. Adding to the show are a live band and visual elements that — thanks to a partnership with the Prince family estate — include footage from Prince’s archives, music videos and live performances.

While Thompson isn’t on the tour — acclaimed drummer Nisan Stewart of The Soul Seekers serves as musical director — his presence will be felt in the song choices and arrangements.

“There’s gonna be things where you go, ‘Wait, what was that five seconds of something?’ I would call them gems from the catalog,” Cook says. “With Prince fans, there’s casual fans and there’s really in-depth fans and as [Thompson] creates [the music], he’s really understanding that and trying to play to that.”

So, yes, you’ll hear “1999” and “Nothing Compares 2 U” with new orchestral arrangements, but you’ll also hear less famous songs like “Venus de Milo” and “Alexa de Paris.” Some songs will appear in medleys or as little snippets. “Purple Rain,” presumably, will lend itself especially well to the orchestra treatment.

Thompson worked with Prince collaborator Brent Fischer on the arrangements; session musician Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who has played with Ray Charles and Dr. Dre, is part of the band.

Still, the orchestra is the focus. Cook, who used to work for the Dallas Symphony, has put on several orchestral pop shows as a way to help classical music reach new audiences.

“Classical music is hurting, attendance is hurting, so we’ve taken the lead in creating these kinds of shows,” he says of TCG, noting past orchestral shows he’s worked on with Wyclef Jean, The Roots and Kenny G.

Ultimately, though, this latest show is meant to cater to fans who miss the Purple One’s electrifying live performances.

“It’s about creating something that the fans are gonna celebrate,” Cook says. “That’s why we called it ‘4U: A Symphonic Celebration.’ Because that’s really what we’re doing.”

Wolf Trap, Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna; Sat., 8 p.m., $30-$60.

Rudi Greenberg is the features managing editor at Express and writes about comedy, music, beer and D.C. life.

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