We offer music for everyone at the CPO, and are starting 2015 with a classic rock concert! On January 16 & 17, former Kansas frontman John Elefante will belt out some of the greatest rock hits of all time, including Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, Aerosmith’s Dream On, Kansas’ Dust in the Wind, and more.

Conducting a classic rock concert has its own unique quirks and challenges. We asked CPO Resident Conductor Adam Johnson to tell us more.

As a conductor, what is it like to prepare for a classic rock concert? 

Preparing a classic rock concert is in some ways very similar to the way I would prepare any other concert. I get the scores (the printed music) ahead of time and learn the notes that the Orchestra will play. What is significantly different however is that all the elements of the song are not necessarily written in my score – for example, the band doesn’t play from notes, they generally work from knowing the structure of the piece and the chord progressions, so I don’t have their parts written in. Often the singer’s lyrics aren’t written in either, so I have to listen to recordings to be able to anticipate what will be happening beyond just what’s written in front of me. In a symphony I have every part, but in rock and other music genres I don’t. It’s important that I know those parts regardless, both to blend with it and because I’d have to be able to keep everything together if something unplanned were to occur.

How does classic rock lend itself to orchestral music?

Some songs lend themselves to orchestral music more naturally than others, but the general aim of rock is to communicate emotion through sound, which is exactly what an orchestra is all about. The chords played by the electric guitar and bass get filled out by dozens of string players, boosting not only the sound but more importantly, adding another dimension to the tone colour. The winds, brass, and percussion add other tone colours, and the overall effect is a richness that has both familiar and new qualities when compared to the original version. The goal is not to reproduce exactly the original version, but rather to enjoy the mix of musicians on stage and to bring the audience an experience they can’t have anywhere else.

 How does this type of music challenge you as a conductor?

In general rock and pop music is less complex than classical and by its nature is more repetitive (due to the verse-chorus structure), so the challenges are different. I would normally be responsible for the balance of sound in the hall, but in these cases with amplified sounds that job falls on the sound technician – and it’s amazing what they can do. For example, if the singer is amplified and the Orchestra is not, the sound man can delay the speakers by a few milliseconds so that it doesn’t arrive in the hall before the acoustic sounds emanating from behind the speakers. It’s subtle, but it’s the crucial difference between an undesirable karaoke effect and a blended live sound. The challenge for me, and especially for the Orchestra, is that the sound levels are often very intense on stage, making it harder for us to hear each other. We depend on our ears to play together, so if the ambient sound is high, it can be more difficult at times. Some songs are straightforward and we can just enjoy rocking out, and some require more concentration to keep it all working together. We typically have only one rehearsal for these shows, so we have to nail it the first time, because the next time there will be 1600 people counting on us to deliver their favorite songs. It’s always exciting!

What are you most looking forward to about these concerts?

What I love about rock concerts is that they’re all about having a great time. The audience has a blast, and the energy circulates between the band, the Orchestra, and the public, with the music at the centre of it all. It brings people back to the days when they first heard and fell in love with the music, and even generations born in later decades are moved by the timeless qualities of a great song. I’m also looking forward to collaborating with John Elefante – he’s a fantastic singer who brings so much to the stage. A great artist gives in a way that has an audience leave with more than they arrived with – more energy, more joy, more memories; whatever it is, it’s a special thing that only exists in that moment with that crowd. Each performance is unique and inherently special.