Stewart Copeland @ Symphony Hall, 26 March 2019

There is no question that even though tonight’s show is the London Concert Orchestra conducted by Troy Miller, the focus is always going to be on Stewart Copeland’s undeniably brilliant musicianship and his exuberant charm.  However, it is clearly a classical gig, with customary entrance by the orchestra, followed by applause for the first violinist, louder applause for the conductor and rapturous rock n roll whooping and hollering for one of rock’s greatest drummers.  Mr Copeland, who bounds on stage like Dick Van Dyke dressed as the toy doll in Chitty Chitty Ban Bang; all arms and legs flopping about wildly with excitement at playing in Birmingham’s prodigious and beautiful venue.  He admits to almost cheating his way in to this job, but this is just his very humble demeanour, which seems sincere and is certainly the public persona you see in his documentaries and interviews.  Stewart Copeland is simply a beautiful human being and his enthusiasm for music is as endearing as it is infectious.

Then he starts playing, and then you realise moments into opener ‘Poltroons in Paradise’ that not only is he one of the top five drummers in the world, but his compositional work is fascinating.  This piece, for orchestra and percussion is mesmerising as you hear the interplay between the musician at the drumkit and the musician on percussion (Donna-Maria Landowski).  The syncopation, dynamics and timbres they produce, backed by the sensitively conducted orchestra is a treat for the ears.

Copeland’s playfulness behind his drums and the way he engages with his kit, reminds me of Chico Marx playing piano; something only a master musician can pull off.  And like the Marx brother, his focus at all times is on maximum entertainment value.  Consequently there is little in the way of gravitas during the evening, which was a mixture of segments from Copeland’s TV and film scores (Equalizer, Ben Hur, Rumblefish, Wall Street) and his theme to the Spyro the Dragon video game, as well as individual pieces plucked from his albums.  ‘Coco’ in particular is glorious, especially with his introduction to the piece in which he describes the inspiration being the different running rhythms of his horse and a giraffe he rode next to (the image which is on the back cover of the album The Rhythmatist).  The opening perfectly timed drum and percussion patterns are as complex as they are exciting to hear played live, as they weave in and out of sync with each other.  You can picture the different gaits of these two graceful animals as you follow the drum and percussion parts.

The set also includes three Police songs —‘ Darkness’, ‘Miss Gradenko’ and ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, all of which are rearranged in such an imaginative way to render them almost unrecognisable.  Copeland still delivers a beautifully sounding bell on the ride cymbal though in the latter, which is distinctively Copeland.

So the set is an eclectic mix and the versions differ from the recordings due to the orchestra taking the place of a band.  However, Copeland’s genius at arranging these pieces for orchestra is breathtaking and utterly compelling.  There are times when having a drumkit playing four four rhythms along with an orchestra conjures up soundtracks from the 1970’s like ‘Shaft’, but when it is Stewart Copeland playing his famous Tama kit, this is far from being a criticism.  I could level some criticism at the composer’s fondness for ending every piece with a crescendo but I guess this will be standard fare when the set contains shorter sections of longer pieces rather than a complete piece.  I guess the old adage of playing the hits and ending with a bang crosses many genres.

The show does illustrate the gulf between the classical musician and the rock musician, when Copeland describes his experience with both camps and how he has to adjust his way of working.  It is interesting to hear how he advised an orchestra to ‘feel it’ when recording his score for ‘Rumblefish’ (the way he had earlier directed a rock guitarist) and the orchestra could not follow his logic, asking inevitably “Do you want us to play the notes on the page, or what?”  This is followed up when Copeland tells the audience he only met this orchestra that day and had just four hours of rehearsals with them, but still managed to pull off a perfect performance, which maybe the musicians didn’t take as a compliment as they are gifted professionals… but maybe the anecdote is more about Copeland’s own feelings about his talent.  And then finally before the encore, he jokes with the ‘band’ that maybe they should just jam in the key of A for a while… they don’t, and instead end with ‘Miss Gradenko’.

It is an absolute pleasure to watch Stewart Copeland play any kind of music, but particularly his orchestral work in such a beautiful venue.  I now feel privileged to have witnessed two exceptional left handed drummers playing their right handed kits in Symphony Hall, first Ringo Starr and now Stewart Copeland.  His tour continues through the UK and then Europe and is a must see.

Reviewer: Alan Neilson

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