Stewart Copeland To Premiere Orchestral Piece
Drummer Stewart Copeland will be premièring his new orchestral work in Liverpool this month.
“I just want to rock the joint,” announces Stewart Copeland, which isn’t what you normally expect to hear uttered by a classical composer preparing to première a new work.
Then again, the 61-year-old isn’t your average classical composer.
But the former drummer with The Police is about to première his latest piece, a percussion concerto commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic to ‘bring down the house’ next week ahead of the Philharmonic Hall’s £13m regeneration.
Vasily Petrenko will conduct Poltroons in Paradise – scored for timpani, percussion and full symphony orchestra – with Stewart looking on.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what Vasily comes up with,” he says on a long-distance call from a ‘sparkly champagne morning’ in LA to a, it has to be said, rather grey teatime in Liverpool.
“With his Shostakovich and his Rachmaninov I know he can get the rhythm.”
He’s also looking forward to getting back to the UK, not least for a good old British fry up.
“When I arrive in Blighty the first stop is Mike’s greasy spoon cafe for a cup of tea,” he reveals, slipping into Cockney geezer accent, “double egg, sausages, beans and a slice.”
“This is a very different animal, this is regular orchestral percussion”
You can almost hear his California neighbours hyperventilating from here.
That, it turns out, was the staple late-night diet for The Police on long drives home to London after gigging in places like Liverpool back in the 80’s.
Meanwhile it’s ‘five or six years’ since the drummer last played the city.
This time however he’s returning purely as a spectator, at next Friday’s concert at least. The two days of rehearsals are a chance to be more hands-on.
“I’ll be head-to-head with Mr Petrenko, just twiddling it,” he says of working with the Phil on the piece.
“Hopefully if I’ve done my job, I won’t say a word in rehearsals. But I won’t have done my job, there will be a few things… maybe that’s just inevitable, it never happens otherwise.”
For those who only know Stewart Copeland from The Police, the band he formed with Sting and Andy Summers more than 35 years ago, it may come as a surprise to learn that for the past three decades his day job has actually been composing.
Initially, it was film soundtracks – he was Golden Globe nominated for Rumble Fish in 1983, and his other credits include Airborne, Highlander II, Wall Street, Taking Care of Business and She’s Having a Baby.
“My musical education that I had before I got into rock ’n’ roll wasn’t touched for my years in rock ’n’ roll,” he explains. “I never looked at a dot on a page for 10 years, during the whole period of playing in a band.
“But when I became a professional film composer, a flinty-eyed hired gun, that’s when first of all the dots came back into importance, putting music on the page. In the world of a professional composer is where you really learn the chops.
“I believe a film composer has a wider music skill-set than any other kind of musician. You have to learn things that your instincts as an artist would not take you to.”
On one job, for a comedy film, he was tasked with creating a ‘dark version’ of some Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers, in the process, as he relates drolly, “figuring out how to carry that tune with a really malicious undercurrent of hostility!
“Along the way I learned a great respect for how they built songs, and I learned a thing or two.”
Since the 1980’s he’s also composed a number of classical works, including ballets (King Lear, Emilio and Prey) and operas – he wrote Horse Opera for Channel 4 back in 1992, while his orchestral composition Celeste was premièred in Savannah in 2008.
The same year he was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to compose a piece for Indonesian percussion instruments. The result was Gamelan D’Drum.
“This is a very different animal, this is regular orchestral percussion,” he says of Poltroons in Paradise, which he wrote after a call from the RLPO.
“Turns out they have some stellar percussion players that need a piece to demonstrate their prowess. Oddly, they came to me,” he jokes.
Timpanist Neil Hitt and percussionists Graham Johns, Josephine Frieze and Henry Baldwin will take on the work, which tells the story of revolutionaries who are tempted by the very things against which they revolted.
“The thing about percussion concertos is that most of them are quite difficult and challenging to listen to,” says Stewart. “They’re often more like a tone poem.
“And it does seem to me that very often composers approaching this particular challenge of writing something for the percussion section go off into a kind of a reverie of the sound of the drum.
“What they often forget is that the best part about percussion is rhythm. They’re really good at rhythm. Not so good at melody, but really they’re great at rhythm.
“And this piece is all about rhythm.”
Unlike what he calls the ‘old world’ composers, his piece uses percussion as a rhythmic driving force – just as it is in rock ’n’ roll.
“You get into the groove,” he says, “and you feel it, and it’s a very big part of the musical experience, very physical.
“And there’s no reason why an orchestra can’t have that same effect.”
He grins: “I still believe there are a lot of cool new things an orchestra can do to burn down the house.”
Or indeed, to bring down the house.
It sounds suspiciously as though the musician in Stewart would like to play in this new piece, complete with its passage of percussion ‘improv’, himself.
“Oh yes,” he admits. “Not this time around with Liverpool, because this is for your lads and lass up there, this is written for them.
“But when they’ve had their fun with it, I certainly intend to as well.”
Poltroons in Paradise is performed as part of the Bringing Down the House concert at the Philharmonic Hall on May 23.