Stay Right Where You Are

When can an opera singer be a folk singer? Almost never.

Though today’s classical-music record labels take credit for the genre’s conception, “crossover” music has been around since the 19th-century birth of American popular song. Take, for instance, the blaring horns in United Airlines ads or the clarinet glissando that opens Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Those riffs belong to “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin, a composer who, in the 1930s, found perhaps the most common ground between popular song, concerto form, and blues the world ever heard. “Rhapsody in Blue” is crossover at its earliest and best: It generates an uncompromising, seamless fusion of disparate idioms.

Unfortunately, more and more of today’s so-called crossover projects—violinist Joshua Bell’s foray into fiddling or crooner Andrea Bocelli’s take on serious opera—are driven by marketing executives looking for fast, easy ways to infuse their labels with life. This isn’t real crossover, original music that blends pre-existing genres; it’s “crossing over,” a performance gimmick developed to sell records. These albums showcase celebrity artists famous for the mastery of one idiom attempting to cross over into a foreign one. The experiments are usually ill-advised; you get jazz artists teaming up with classical orchestras and opera singers joining forces with pop stars to play stuff they obviously haven’t mastered. The results—with a few noteworthy exceptions—are embarrassing for everyone.

Consider For the Stars, a folk/jazz song collection from the angelic-voiced opera success Anne Sofie von Otter and the yelping, ever-hip, ever-collaborating, black-plastic-frame-glassed rocker Elvis Costello. This album is bad news. Von Otter’s voice, though light and bubbly in a Mozart aria, comes across as forced, casually wafting above the harmony in a wanna-be Peter-Paul-and-Mary way. “7_For the Stars,” the album’s namesake song, is so dumbed-down and cheesy that it couldn’t make it onto Barney’s latest children’s video. The same goes for “8_April After All.” This song’s simplistic piano chords and Muzaklike melody sound like something high-school bands that loved the band Chicago in the ‘80s might have attempted after school on their Casio PS1s. In fact, the album sounds so silly that I feel dumb even listening to it.

A more successful stab at crossing over is Creation, an album by jazz sax player Branford Marsalis (the first insult-taker, I mean band leader, of Jay Leno’s orchestra) and the renowned conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Creation features famous French classical music written for saxophone and some tunes that Marsalis transcribed for it. Marsalis, unlike von Otter, takes to his new field more naturally, even if he does overinterpret music that was written for other instruments. In his lippy phrasing, Claude Debussy’s “6_Golliwogs Cakewalk” is real top-hat-twirling fun; conversely, with his attention to line, Erik Satie’s “4_Gymnopedie No. 3” is one smooth, long, pensive French sentence. The problem with Marsalis’ performances is that they are overmiked and therefore served up on somewhat of an audio silver platter; his saxophone jumps way in front of the orchestra in pieces that only feature it a part of the ensemble. (Click 5_La Creation du Monde to listen to Milhaud’s “La Creation du Monde.”) Orpheus sounds like it always does—tight and expressive. But even though he plays well, Marsalis’ musical attitude is too free, too lazy, and too loud for this repertoire to evoke the feelings that its composers intended.

True, Creation is pleasant and shows Marsalis’ devotion to classical music. But there are aisles of untouched CDs in record stores across the country that feature this music played correctly and, often, much better. These records don’t sell because they don’t feature general household names. For French music—Ravel, Debussy, Satie, Milhaud—played authentically, listen to Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony, Pierre Monteaux and the Boston Symphony, or pianists Aldo Ciccolini and Walter Gieseking. Before learning what variations can be played on a tune, it’s often smart to acquaint yourself with the real thing first.

One jazz/classical musician who’s somehow had no problem mastering the real thing for the better part of 50 years is André Previn. Previn, who’s just released Live at the Jazz Standard, a classic collection of piano and bass arrangements, is known to classical-music fans as a famous conductor, composer, and pianist—an ex-director of both the London Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was recently named music director of the Oslo Philharmonic and continues to perform the classics around the world. Few remember, however, that Previn began his career as a jazz pianist and has penned numerous pieces, like “3_Quiet Music/New Valley,” that rival the great standards. His interpretations of jazz hits like Duke Ellington’s “2_Come Sunday” or Cole Porter’s “1_What is this thing called love” also continue to strike a chord with audiences for their unfaltering taste.

Previn is an artist completely at home in the spontaneity of improvisation: He effectively explores new musical ground with catchy motifs and plays so freely you would never guess he could master Mozartian form. From Previn, we learn that the fungibility of music skill is not all it’s cracked up to be. Genre-specific styles are time-tested and can’t be adopted overnight. This sort of well-honed confidence and purpose—which can only be a result of true care, talent, and study—is what the art of crossing over deserves.