Milwaukee Symphony to perform Music of David Bowie on March 6

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2019.20 Season, Conductor, Pops

Listening to an original David Bowie song, Brent Havens can already hear how it will sound with a full orchestra.

Havens, who will conduct the Milwaukee Symphony in a concert of Bowie’s music at the Riverside Theater on Friday, March 6, has built a career out of arranging and presenting the music of 1970s rock stars with a rock band and full symphony orchestra onstage together.

Although the concept dates back to the 1990s, “orchestras were afraid of it early on,” Havens said recently by phone from his office in Virginia. But in the early 2000s, “it sort of exploded. It wasn’t the orchestras’ usual audience, it was a totally different audience.” Havens’ company, Windborne, now does up to 100 shows per year, with three crews and four conductors.

As the arranger, his task is to “let people hear the music they know and love and want to sing along to,” with an orchestral part that is “complementary but not overriding.” In the case of Bowie, “he’s so musically rich, the orchestra gets to play all these really cool licks. I can listen and hear the counterpoint, and I can distribute it among the strings and woodwinds and brass.”

For Bowie’s “Young Americans,” which opens with a saxophone solo on the studio version, Havens listened to many live concert versions and realized that that particular lick was often played by a guitar or keyboard. “So I thought, OK, we’ll have a trumpet player do it. And people love it. They go nuts. It’s not what they’re expecting.”

The greater challenge, he says, comes in setting basic rock tunes from the 60s that use only four chords: “I think, what am I going to do with this?” But shows such as Bowie and Queen “wrote themselves, because I could hear the counterpoint melodies in my head.”

Putting together a show means going through the whole catalog of the band or singer, representing all stages of their career and including both greatest hits and more obscure numbers. “The audience will hear all those different styles, but we don’t do it in order,” Havens said – he’s thinking about pacing the set. In Bowie’s case, “I love that I have so much to work with. At the end of the concert, someone always says, ‘Why didn’t you play this song?’ But that would mean leaving out something else.”

And the other comment he sometimes gets is, “I had no idea there was going to be a singer or a band. Or, I had no idea there was going to be an orchestra. It’s a rock concert with a full orchestra. They’re completely integrated.”

For the rock band that accompanies singer and orchestra, “it’s an art in itself, knowing how to follow the conductor and how to back off,” to say nothing of knowing how to read music. “The audition process is pretty strenuous.”

And for the singers? Vocalist Tony Vincent will perform Bowie’s songs, but “I don’t hire impersonators,” Havens said. “These aren’t tribute bands; they don’t dress up like the artists. We celebrate the music, not just the vocalists. You do want them to have some of that artist, but with their own personality in it as well. Who can imitate David Bowie or Freddie Mercury or Robert Plant?”

Across the country, he said, audiences “are so proud their orchestra can play music that they love. The orchestra always gets the biggest hand of the night, when we say, ‘Give it up for your hometown orchestra.’” The rock concerts always draw large, enthusiastic crowds, and while most research shows that those concertgoers rarely come back for pops or classical concerts, it still gets a new audience in the door. “We did surveys and found that 86 percent of the people who came had never seen their local orchestra before,” Havens said.

Havens’ shows have been regular visitors in Milwaukee for some years, and “we’ve played here so many times, they know what to expect. They know the charts will be right, and they can look at the music and play it perfectly even though they’ve never seen it. I have no concerns with the Milwaukee Symphony, because they’re world class.”