BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Brent Havens remembers well the first time he put together the music of Led Zeppelin with a symphony orchestra. It was 1995 and he tried out the concept with the Virginia Symphony.
"We had no idea how it would do, so we put the concert in a 1,000-seat theater,'' says Havens, an arranger and conductor who lives in Virginia Beach. "It sold out in one day. And we went — oh, hello, that was pretty interesting.''
Thus was spawned a lucrative cottage industry that marries rock and classical music and brings sizable new audiences to symphony orchestras. Havens and his Zeppelin show are featured with the Florida Orchestra at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Saturday.
There's nothing new about joining rock and classical music. In the glory days of prog-rock in the 1960s and '70s, crossover giants walked the Earth: Procol Harum, the Moody Blues, Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and others flirted with symphony orchestras.
And there have been lots of sweeping strings set to rock, from the Beatles' The Long and Winding Road to the brilliant pairing of Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony on the album S&M.
Led Zeppelin got the treatment by the London Philharmonic in Kashmir: The Symphonic Led Zeppelin, but that 1997 album was more symphonic than Zep, with no vocals, guitar, drums or bass. In Havens' show, the orchestra basically serves as the backup band to five rockers, including Randy Jackson (lead singer of the band Zebra) making like Robert Plant.
"There's full rock lighting with fog and the mirror ball and the whole deal,'' Havens says. "The entire orchestra is miked. So it's not a pops type of concert. It's an out and out rock show.''
Havens, 53, is founder of Windborne Music, which has five different classic rock shows for which he writes the orchestra arrangements and conducts. Along with Zeppelin there are shows for Pink Floyd, the Eagles, the Doors and the newest one, Queen.
A year ago, the Florida Orchestra did the Pink Floyd show at Mahaffey Theater, and attendance was a robust 1,781, more than 90 percent of capacity. "Not only was it a full house, but it was a new audience for the orchestra,'' says Sherry Powell, marketing and communications director. "It's so nice to be able to do something relevant to people who don't normally come to orchestra concerts.''
However, there isn't much evidence that the orchestra's forays into the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and other special shows build the audience for mainstream classical fare. "A couple of years ago we did the Lord of the Rings Symphony, and they were well attended,'' says Henry Adams, associate director of marketing and communications. "Very few people who bought those tickets came to other concerts.''
Havens has arrangements for 30 Led Zeppelin songs, and Saturday's concert will feature about 18 of them, no doubt including such favorites as Black Dog, Going to California and, yes, Stairway to Heaven. He essentially transcribes the rock band parts, because that's what fans expect to hear.
"It's astounding how well these people know this music,'' Havens says. "They know lick for lick on the guitar, every nuance of the phrasing of the lyrics. That's why we try to keep it close to the original. I think I'd be disappointed if I went to a concert and heard somebody's interpretation of Zeppelin.''
So does that mean guitarist George Cintron can match the great Jimmy Page?
"He has the style down,'' Havens says. "Most of the solos are note for note. The Heartbreaker solo, where it's all guitar, he steps out and does a five-, six-minute piece all by himself. It's certainly in the vein.''
And drummer Powell Randolph does the big Moby Dick solo that John Bonham did, though not for the 20 minutes that Bonzo usually took up. "I don't let Powell go on that long. But it is an amazing solo,'' Havens says.
Havens was originally drawn to Led Zeppelin because one of the group's greatest hits, Kashmir, already featured strings and brass. His challenge in writing orchestration for the songs was to keep the charts interesting.
"That was really the critical thing, that it didn't come out cheesy or cheap sounding,'' he says. "I wanted to give it the elegance that it deserved.''
Havens didn't want the orchestra just playing whole notes behind the band. "Avoiding the footballs (whole notes) is always one of my big concerns,'' he says. "But for a couple of tunes you almost need that. Like in Going to California I have lush strings behind it. For the majority of the tunes I'll have counterpoint melodies and lots of rich harmonic structures in the orchestra.''
Even after years of labor on arrangements of Zeppelin's music, Havens remains a fan of the heavy metal legends. "The rhythmic and harmonic complexities they were using — the open tunings in guitars and the chords on top of chords — are still intriguing to me. I had a much greater respect for them after I transcribed all the music than I did going into it.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.