Sophie Lewis, Chief Executive of Sinfonia Cymru, shares her thoughts on The Freddie Mercury Project.
If you follow Sinfonia Cymru you will no doubt be aware of the orchestra’s forthcoming orchestral series called The Freddie Mercury Project. If you’ve missed it, we commissioned violinist and composer Vlad Maistorovici to write QUEEN Concertante, a collection of songs written by Freddie Mercury/Queen along with a new piece by Vlad for a 23 piece orchestra and solo violin/viola, clarinet and piano. At the four concerts touring Wales between 9 – 12 June, Vlad will perform the solo violin/viola part and conduct the orchestra. This is one of three major projects making up Sinfonia Cymru’s 20th Birthday season in 2016 celebrating innovation.
The initial idea came from one of our musicians through the orchestra’s Curate programme which gives a platform for their creative ideas. Robin Green, who will be playing the solo piano part for the concerts, told me about Vlad and his love of Queen’s music and how he wanted to do an orchestral project. Meeting Vlad was the next step which must have been two years ago now.
I couldn’t help but be inspired, not only by the enthusiasm but also the artistic endorsement from two already established artists in their own right. They talked passionately about how fresh and innovative Queen’s writing was, how it was different to what else was going on at the time and how far it broke all the rules of songwriting. When we started to think around innovation as a theme for our 20th Birthday programme, this project neatly slipped into place.
Right now, The Freddie Mercury Project feels like one of those presents you buy someone and you are really pleased with yourself because you think it is just about the best present ever and you get all nervous and tingly just thinking about it being unwrapped. It is sitting, all wrapped up in a secret hiding place, just waiting.
As we wait, I have been learning a lot about Freddie and Queen and to me there are three themes that really stick out: Conviction, Risk and Being Honest.
We have enjoyed promoting the concerts for the past few months (who knew you could have so much fun with a feather boa or the Muppets’ rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody?) but this is serious too.
At the beginning in the very early 1970’s, Queen was having a hard time. The first album had flopped. No one turned up to one gig and at another they were asked to leave after the first set because the audience preferred to keep the interval disco going. Ouch. At this time, each band member would have been the same age as the average Sinfonia Cymru musician – young people in their twenties with something new to say.
In 1971 when an early manager/producer’s brother went to hear Queen at a nurses’ dance in Norwood he insisted his brother hear them. When he did, he was struck by an “amazing internal drive”, great ability and a unified sense of purpose. Sounds familiar. Yes ok this is what orchestras are all about, but when a group of young musicians play with such conviction and energy, it is a different kind of experience.
This conviction extends to recent player-driven experiments such as Unbuttoned and Unease, through which a sense of restlessness and a genuine appetite to test the boundaries prevails. Similarly, by the time the members of Queen were contemplating their third album, they were under huge pressure (no pun intended) to create something more mainstream and commercially viable. They would not give in or as Freddie so eloquently (?) put it:
“We had certain fixed ideas of what we wanted to do and we were going to bloody do them whether people said yes or no.”
Anarchy isn’t necessarily the answer in an orchestra, but a good dose of conviction goes a long way.
When I mentioned The Freddie Mercury Project to the person sitting next to me at a high brow event recently they replied, “well I suppose you have to do things like that don’t you”. Among some, this will be the initial assumption, that somehow this is a safe bet, a banker or worse still, a gimmick. Not so. Compared to The Freddie Mercury Project, putting on “normal” concerts is a walk in the park.
Not only is this the first time we have brought something entirely new and different into our orchestral touring programme but it has also been a huge learning curve. Did you know that Freddie’s yellow leather jacket is copyrighted? No, neither did we.
Most importantly though,we need audiences to trust us and take a risk. It is always hard to describe what something might look and sound like when it is totally new. We’ve seen Vlad in action, we know the orchestra will be brilliant and we’ve seen the score. As I’ve said, we believe in the musical integrity of this project and if we didn’t, we simply wouldn’t be doing it.
If Queen had accepted all the advice in 1975 after they recorded Bohemian Rhapsody at Rockfield Studios in Wales, they would never have released it. It was the most expensive single ever made at the time of its release and because it was so musically outrageous it represented a huge risk. It paid off. Bohemian Rhapsody topped the UK Singles Chart for 9 weeks and in 2012 was voted ‘The Nation’s Favourite Number One’.
I doubt we’ll make it to Number 1 (whatever that means these days) but we will keep on taking risks, big risks, because, with our musicians, we totally believe in what we are doing.
Sometimes I wish we could just all be a little bit more honest. It never seems to be enough to tell it how it is. There’s a need to add in extra words to make your point and somehow give it more credence. There are times when this is absolutely required but there are times when you just want to say, “give it a go, we think it’s going to be great”.
From what I’ve read and seen the rock and pop press of the 70’s were just as prone to trying to add extra meaning when there wasn’t any. One interviewer tries to probe Freddie by asking him if he was worshipping Satan or studying demonology because he had included the word “Beelzebub” in his lyrics. Freddie smiles back at him and says “it’s just a great word”. In fact no one knows what Bohemian Rhapsody is about possibly not even Freddie who was seldom seen with a book, favouring the Harvey Nicks catalogue.
I remember watching an interview with a prolific violinist of the 20th Century. The interviewer asked him what he thinks about when he performs, clearly expecting an enlightened response. The refreshingly honest answer is simply “hope I play in tune and make a nice sound”.
So beyond the context and insights in this blog I am not going to pad it out with insincere words that don’t really mean anything. Just give it a go, we think it’s going to be great.
Finally, when my smallish daughter asked me if Queen would be at our concerts, I had to disappoint her. However, now that I have thought about it, perhaps they might be, in spirit.