Peter Gabriel’s new blood Suite performed by the KSU Symphony Orchestra, Part One

Review of

Peter Gabriel’s new blood Orchestral Suite

Kennesaw State University Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble

Michael Alexander and David Kehler, conductors

Bailey Performance Center, Kennesaw State University

Thursday, January 10, 2013. 8:00 pm

new blood

Composed by Peter Gabriel

Arranged by John Metcalfe

Program

  • The Rhythm of the Heat
  • Downside Up
  • San Jacinto
  • Intruder
  • Wallflower
  • In Your Eyes
  • Mercy Street
  • Red Rain
  • Darkness
  • Don’t Give Up
  • Digging In The Dirt
  • The Nest that Sailed the Sky
  • Solsbury Hill

Tonight I attended a fascinating concert by the KSU Orchestra, a suite of pieces that stretched and challenged all of the 58 student performers in unexpected ways, from an unconventional source.

Peter Gabriel’s new blood suite, which was presented by Gabriel with a professional orchestra in a globe-hopping tour that spanned months, has never been performed outside of Gabriel’s direct involvement until now. The KSU music faculty took it upon themselves to contact Peter Gabriel’s organization and obtain clearance to do their own production, for one performance only.

A couple of years ago rock star Peter Gabriel commissioned John Metcalfe to work with him in arranging a number of his songs, spanning 25 years of recordings, into an orchestral suite which he could take on tour, singing with the orchestra in a decidedly non-conventional context. What I mean by that is they dispensed with the way that countless classic rock acts have approached performing with an orchestra. They made a decision not to use any rock band instruments or rock musicians, not to use any electronic instruments or pre-recorded tracks, and they decided to make each piece in the suite sound completely unlike any of the others, by means of the techniques of 20th and 21st-century orchestration. Moreover Gabriel made an exceptionally wise choice not to orchestrate his “greatest hits”; he chose a suite of pieces with a few titles that even his most ardent fans might find obscure. He selected the pieces from his body of work that seemed to him would sound the best when adapted to a symphony orchestra. All of these turned out to be the right decisions.

He also decided to record and present, on a bonus CD in an album package, entirely instrumental arrangements of each of these pieces without anyone singing the melody and the lyrics. These arrangements, largely without melody and song, put the focus on the orchestration and the moods.

Tonight at the Bailey Performance Hall at KSU, directors Michael Alexander and David Kehler took turns with each successive piece, challenging their students to accomplish some prodigious musical achievements on what appears to be very little rehearsal. In the concert program, Assistant Dean Samuel Robinson waxed rhapsodic in a two-page essay about his lifelong admiration for the music of Peter Gabriel, and how important it was to various music faculty members to expose their students to these works.

Peter Gabriel covered a significant amount of territory in musical growth and innovation in twenty-five years. In 1975 he left behind the baroque complexity of his band Genesis, one of the most popular rock bands in England and Europe at the time, spent a lot of time in the United States, and started over with a sound that had more to do with punk than the folk-infused progressive rock for which he was known. Almost immediately expanding upward from his own new stripped-down, dark and angry sound, his music quickly came to incorporate intricate electronic music elements through the programmed sequences of electronic synthesist Larry Fast. Throughout the rest of his solo career, Gabriel’s compositions continued to incorporate sequenced and programmed technological elements, including plenty of drum machines, incorporating more and more sophisticated electronic music technology as he went. At some point in a strange juxtaposition he also began to incorporate world music, especially African drumming and singing from Senegal. But at no point, except perhaps for the instrumental soundtrack that he composed and performed for the motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ, did his music depart from being recognizable as rock music, played by a live rock band.

Adapting this sort of material into the form of the symphony orchestra — that’s where the fascination starts.

I happen to know musician Larry Fast, so when I heard that the KSU Symphony Orchestra was performing new blood, I wrote to him to ask him his opinion on the work. Larry said, “I was very impressed with the orchestral arrangements. Some were new, but interesting takes on the originals. But for some the orchestrator studied the original synth parts and just nailed them perfectly. I saw the two tours and really enjoyed them.”

Next up, my review of the KSU concert. I’ll have as much to say about the pieces themselves as I will about their performance of them.

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