April 14 2010 12:00 AM

‘Rocket’ puts classic rock into a symphonic setting



Translating synthesizers into symphonic arrangements is all in a day’s work for Peter Brennan, the man behind “Rocket Man: The Music of Elton John,” which closes out the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s Pops Series Friday night.

After a long career as a guitarist, music producer and music director, Brennan began looking for ways to combine rock and symphonic music. His first project was a show built around the music of Elton John and performed by Orchestra London in London, Ontario.

“It was long ago thrown out and rewritten,” Brennan said, in a phone interview from his office in London, “because it was my first project with a full orchestra. Over time, you learn much, much more about that orchestra animal and you get much better at it.”

In the 15 years since he launched his Jeans ‘N’ Classics group, Brennan has had plenty of opportunities to perfect his style. The company has more than 40 different programs in its repertoire, including tributes to ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, Prince and even “Shout It Out Loud: Symphonic KISS.”

Blending Top 40 classics and classical music ensembles is something of a balancing act. “If it’s a simplistic pop song you’re working with, you don’t want to destroy what made it work,” Brennan explained. “But you don’t want the orchestra to be wallpaper in the background, either.”

In “Rocket Man,” the arrangements are designed to maintain the essence of John’s music while ensuring the orchestra stays busy. “They’ve got some wicked sectional work in the show, on songs like ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ and ‘The Bitch is Back,’” Brennan said.

While “Rocket Man” spotlights many of John’s best-known hits — “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” “Your Song,” “Circle of Life,” etc. — Brennan said there’s also a certain amount of what he calls John’s “stylistic stepping stones,” such as the eerie instrumental “Funeral for a Friend,” “Madman Across the Water” (“which has a really snarky string section in the center that’s fun to do,” he said) and “Have Mercy on the Criminal,” which Brennan calls “a treat to play.”

“Around the time of (John’s) ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ album, it was the golden age of synth, of trying to create the sounds of trumpets and strings through synthesizers,” he said. “It was interesting to hear what they were doing synthetically and then bring it back to real instruments.”

Jean Meulleur handles the vocals throughout the evening as the program rolls through more than three decades’ worth of John material.

The result represents the best of both worlds. “The audience is going to get its Elton fix,” Brennan said, “and, if they’re not used to seeing an orchestra, well, here’s something new for you.”

’Rocket Man: The Music of
Elton John’

Symphony Orchestra and Jeans ‘N’ Classics 8 p.m. Friday, April 16 Great
Hall, Wharton Center $12-$35 (517) 487-5001 www.lansingsymphony.org