Changing Their Tune

Violinist Vanessa-Mae smiles during interview at a Singapore hotel, Monday, Sept. 23, 2002 AP

The sound and shape of classical music is changing with the classical crossover, starring pin-ups like the String Quartet Bond, called (by some) the "Classical Spice Girls."

They're not alone, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Contributor
Eugenia Zukerman
. Violinist Lara St. John plays frisky interpretations of Bach, and sexy Croatian pianist Maksim causes as much buzz and controversy as his music.

"I think classical music is one of the few art forms where you can still shock," says Anne Midgette, a classical music critic for the New York Times. "The visual arts, it's very hard to do. In theater, there's been lots of nudity. But classical music … you can still sort of do a sultry thing on you. Record album and people will sort of react in horror."

But is the music any good?

"I don't think you can generalize," responds Midgette. "I think there are
examples of classical crossover that is very interesting. But I think some
of the ones, who are sort of casting themselves in this pop star mold
without having the artistic depth, perhaps, don't have much to say to me."

But in the case of the Planets, a group named for Gustave Holst's famed
celestial suite, the mix of classical and rock has people listening -- and
buying.

"The worst thing you can do to damage classical music is not play it,
because it will always exist in its original form," says Mike Batt, the
Planets' creator, producer and composer. "I think that you have to break a
few eggs to make an omelet. In this case, the eggs are the delicate feelings
of some people who prefer to be purist."

Batt is credited with guiding supergroup Bond and Vanessa Mae, the Madonna of classical crossover, to the top of the charts.

"I think classical music is lacking a sense of adventure at the moment,"
says Batt. "I think that's something I would very much like to try and
inject into any kind of art I'm involved in."

Batt auditioned artists from Europe's top conservatories in search of
virtuosity and beauty for his latest project, the Planets. The result: a
group equally adept behind their instruments as they are in front of the
audience.

Some of the crossover musicians are wonderful, and proponents say their
sexuality heightens the presentation.

"Pop stars are allowed to dress provocatively, so why shouldn't classical
stars?" says Batt. "In fact, it's the classical people who insist on sort of
covering up and being frumpy. It's those people who are giving themselves a different identity from the rest of the people their age. If you are 23 and attractive, why not wear a nice pair of jeans and a skimpy top? It's certainly what everyone else in the world is doing."

And in the often buttoned-up world of classical music, it may be important
to look the part if you want to be a success, such as in the cases of African-born and Greek-raised tenor Mario Frangoulis, song siren Summer or the dashing Russell Watson, who was dubbed the "people's tenor" by the British press.

"I think if classical music is going to progress and isn't going to die out
quickly, then it needs younger ambassadors to help promote it ... artists
who the man on the street can relate to," says Watson.

Watson, a former factory worker with little formal training, has applied his
robust voice and movie-star looks to everything from Puccini to Paul Simon.
He enjoys a multi-platinum success usually reserved for rock stars.

"I think if I could attribute my success to anything, record companies would
be bottling it and they'd be pouring it down every artist's throat they had," says Watson.

The high record sales for classical crossover has caused the number of
straight classical releases to dwindle.

"That's part of the reason they're seeking new crossover acts," says music
critic Anne Midgette. "Classical music has traditionally sold -- you count
in the thousands. And you count your pop sales in the tens or hundreds of
thousands. It's not enough for a record company to keep a record in
catalogue that sells a few thousand every year. They're looking much more
for the quick fix and the big bucks."

When you consider that classical music accounts for only 4 percent of all
record sales, and most classical radio listeners are over age 50, it's no
wonder many in the industry are trying to skew younger.

Chris Roberts, chairman of Universal Classics Group, the world's largest
classical label, says that while crossover might get media attention, his
label's traditional classical repertoire, like Chinese pianist Lang Lang or
Cecilia Bartoli, remains secure.

"I don't see it as a fad," says Roberts. "I think that people are curious
and artists are curious. I think these fads that might indicate a weakness
in the core foundation of a particular kind of music. I like to think that
weakness isn't a weakness, it's a strength."

Not everyone views it that way. The artistic curiosity of crossover
musicians is seen by critics as a victory of style over substance, as is
the case with the photogenic duo, The Opera Babes.

Mezzo Karen England and soprano Rebecca Knight were discovered while busking in London's Covent Garden and soon found success doing crossover. Critics overlooked their formal training and zeroed in on their looks -- something The Opera Babes view as an asset.

"You don't necessarily have to be doing crossover stuff to make it
accessible," says Karen. "[You] just have to make it less stuffy by talking
to people and having look like you're having a great time."

Knight agrees and says, "Everyone now, in this day and age, has a real idea about the word 'marketing.' And before, they didn't think it mattered. It
didn't matter if someone looked a little bit, kind of, frumpy on their front
cover of their album, things like that. And now, all that matters. Packaging
is really important."

And, if you think all crossover just comes in svelte packages, think again. Celebrated tenor Luciano Pavarotti surrounds himself with a bevy of boogie
woogie and pop beats on his latest outing, "Ti Adoro."

As the classic's world begins to walk arm-in-arm with rock into the cultural
ring, the hope is to keep us listening - perhaps, this time, with our eyes.

  • Rome Neal

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