In the beginning, the maestro was a shaggy suburban rock freak just like the rest of us. And isn't that refreshing? • Before one of the most versatile conductors in the world mastered Mahler, Mozart, Berlioz, before he led more than 65 operas in seven languages, Steven Mercurio was hooked on Hendrix. • "I was a rock 'n' roll kid," says the pride of Rockland County, N.Y., who has an accent that's more Goodfellas than La Boheme. "I loved the guitar virtuosos."
Soon enough, though, his sophisticated ear craved more. "It was jazz in my later teens, and then, finally, classical," the Grammy-winning 54-year-old adds. "But all of that gave me a three-dimensional background. Music, for me, has always been innocent. Music, no matter what it is, is about honesty, integrity."
Ironically, though, for all his varied tastes, cultivated at Boston University and then Juilliard, Mercurio never took to the British rock stylings of the Police.
"Nope. Uh-uh. Zip."
Rest assured, that's changed. On Saturday, Mercurio will lead the world's largest backing band — London's 45-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra — when Sting brings his epic "Symphonicity" tour to the 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre in Tampa.
Mercurio has worked with Pavarotti, Domingo and, most recently, Andrea Bocelli. But his crossover gig with Sting is one of the most ambitious of his career.
"Sting is a terrific songwriter," he says. "He writes good tunes, in all sorts of styles."
Collaborating "100 percent" with the 58-year-old rock star, Mercurio helped concoct more than 30 orchestral arrangements of Police and Sting hits and rarities. Sting is known for getting what he wants — whether launching a Police reunion tour or staging the biggest rock show of the summer — but Mercurio says determination and perfectionism shouldn't be mistaken for vanity.
"They all have healthy egos," he says of the performers with whom he has worked. "But that only drives them to not disappoint their audience. They know what they have to do to succeed. They just all have different ways of defining their turf to succeed."
Lest you think the show is going to be all serious bombast and intensity, Mercurio says don't fret: "Sting always has some musical surprises."
All Would Envy, about a May-December relationship, is now "a jazzy bossa nova." I Hung My Head "has a bit of a country thing going on. But instead of in 4/4 time, it's in 9/8. It's almost as if you're riding the horse!" (An accompanying album, Symphonicities, will be released on July 13.)
Mercurio adds that "all the hits are still recognizable. Roxanne is the one that gets the biggest emotional shift. Everything else has the same character as the original. King of Pain still rocks. The basic DNA of those songs hasn't changed. We want people standing, dancing in the aisles. Sure, Sting wants them to listen to the things that are important. But believe me, by the end of the show — King of Pain, Desert Rose — it's a rock concert."
Mercurio is known to shake a tailfeather onstage ("Wait until you see me," he laughs), but no matter how rocking things might get, he insists he still has to maintain some sense of decorum.
"I still wear my tails, but they're deconstructed tails," he says of his wardrobe. Stylish gray tones have replaced his classic white shirt, white tie, white vest.
"Sting keeps trying to get me to open the collar," Mercurio laughs. "But I still have to represent something of elegance — no matter how much dancing I might do on the podium."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.