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Backing the Blues

The Moody Blues call on a Tampa Bay pops orchestra to help lend a classical feel to Sunday's show at the Ice Palace.

When the Moody Blues recorded Days of Future Passed in 1967, it was nearly two years before the album, one of rock's greatest "concept" recordings, finally flexed its muscle on the charts. For those who don't own a copy, complete with Nights in White Satin, the "concept" is classical music.

The London Philharmonic had as much to do with the album's sound as the Moody Blues. But it marked the beginning of the band's infatuation with elaborate orchestral arrangements, now a trademark of its live performances.

No Moody Blues concert is complete without a giant orchestra backing the band. Such lush requirements come with obvious problems. The main one: where to find an orchestra.

Larry Baird, conductor for the Moody Blues, writes arrangements for 55 players. Since touring with such a large ensemble is nearly impossible, those arrangements usually land in the laps of local companies.

And last week, the lap belonged to Robert Romanski, music director of the Tampa Bay Mostly Pops Orchestra. Sunday's Ice Palace show will be one of the largest concerts Mostly Pops has played to date.

"It's not on the difficulty level of Mahler, but it's not fluff," Romanski said about the score, which serves mainly to color the rock 'n' roll music played by the band. "I look forward having 10,000 people see what the group can do."

Though Mostly Pops has been around for 12 years, it is largely overshadowed by the Florida Orchestra, which performed with the Moody Blues the last time the group appeared in town, at Legends Field.

For Romanski, selecting the Pops for a rock concert is a natural choice over the Florida Orchestra, which plays almost entirely classical music and is more at home in local concert halls. The Pops is a bay area staple at fireworks displays and outdoor venues, playing a repertoire Arthur Fiedler would have loved and taking a more casual approach to acoustic problems and environmental conditions.

"The Mostly Pops is a band of chameleons," Romanski said. "Our musicians come from extensive classical training, but we play basically lighthearted, popular music. People in the audience are going to think we tour with the band, or at least that we've been practicing for a week."

The orchestra will actually have one rehearsal, at 3 p.m. Sunday, before the show. Romanski, who will be playing trumpet while Baird conducts, says that a single two-hour rehearsal isn't unusual for local musicians who get called to perform at rock concerts or at Broadway touring shows.

"A lot of people don't realize when they see shows such as Tony Bennett who comes with a big band, that most of that band are local musicians," Romanski said. "It's obviously a lot more cost-effective."

After a casual look over Baird's score, Romanski says the only problems that the orchestra might run into are kinks in the new arrangements. About five tunes on the score are from the Moodies' new album, Strange Times, set for release Tuesday. That means the orchestras playing the early half of the tour may be the ones to work out the bugs in the score.

"The arrangements are so expertly done that I can't imagine too many problems," Romanski said. "The Moody Blues are very unique in the regard of having live orchestras at all their live concerts. There is something about having a symphony orchestra that appeals to the band. I hope that more groups start bringing in classical music."