St. Louis Symphony Shakes Up Powell Hall with Elvis Tribute 11/10/13: Review, Setlist

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Powell Hall was hoppin' with Elvis Presley fans Sunday afternoon, and there was no way anyone could call 718 North Grand Boulevard "the end of Lonely Street."

Wait, why were Elvis fans at Powell Hall? Isn't that the home of the St. Louis Symphony, you ask? Well, yes. But for one special performance, the spirit of rock and roll's favorite son could be felt alongside the violins, clarinets and French horns of our city's award-winning orchestra, and we couldn't help falling in love.

The concert, "The King: A Tribute to the Music of Elvis," was part of the symphony's "Live at Powell Hall" series, a collection of performances that focus on music icons, current entertainers and scores from film and television. With shows like "The Music of John Williams" and collaborations with Ben Folds and the Indigo Girls in the works, it's obvious that this ain't your granny's symphony anymore. The successful pop culture gambit has contributed to the St. Louis Symphony growing its audience significantly over the past several years while helping new fans shake off their fear that a classical orchestra may be too highbrow for them.

There certainly was a whole lot of shakin' goin' on during "A Tribute to the Music of Elvis." Conductor Steven Jarvi led a stage bursting with musicians through a song list that spanned the King's entire career and excited an audience of all ages. With a piano and drum kit taking unusual places of honor in front of the traditional orchestra seating arrangement, the stage was set for a unique experience.

Once the orchestra was seated and tuned, a quartet of accomplished vocalists was welcomed warmly by an audience that was as intrigued as it was eager. Sporting a black suit and spiky blonde hair, Broadway entertainer Johnny Rodgers found a seat at the piano and belted out the first verse of Presley's lament, "Heartbreak Hotel," punctuating the words with the recognizable "bom-BOMP" on the keys. Scott Coulter, Lee Lessack and Brian Wilson soon joined in, producing a four-part harmony that, combined with the symphony, reworked the King's first million-selling single while still keeping it familiar.

Introducing "Blue Suede Shoes," Coulter eschewed trying to impersonate Presley and claimed that for the day, the four vocalists collectively would represent aspects of the man who loved peanut butter and banana sandwiches: Rodgers brought the rockabilly, Lessack the crooning, Wilson the Vegas flash and Coulter the gospel. Normally the center of attention at Powell Hall, the symphony took a slight step back, instead beautifully framing the singers' voices and serving as the fifth member of the "Elvis Presley Captain Planet" collective. Together, the musicians changed a few time signatures and added excellent harmonies to Presley's traditional rock arrangements.

And that would be the key takeaway from the entire performance. The St. Louis Symphony and the vocalists were not out to perform Presley's songs note for note; instead, the musicians created new arrangements for these special songs that had changed rock & roll forever. Who would have thought that adding a few violas, a tuba and some longer notes would make "Jailhouse Rock" really rock? Apparently these guys. And the surprising thing was that it worked.

We caught audience members throughout the room singing along, tapping their toes and grinning during the hits-packed show. Early into the concert, Coulter pointed out a woman in the front row who had jumped out of her seat to dance, exclaiming, "You're excellent! We'll have what she's having!" Powell Hall isn't typically the scene for boogieing with abandon, but we were excited to see people throwing the rules out the window during "All Shook Up," "Hound Dog" and "Viva Las Vegas."

Backed by the symphony, Presley's songs sounded fuller and different -- but not necessarily with more rock. At times, the arrangements sounded closer to jazz or big band, what with all the cymbal taps and horn features. This wasn't a bad thing, however, as it offered a few instruments some surprising moments in the sun. In "Jailhouse Rock," the xylophone provided a nice accent to Rodgers' piano, the wood block in "It's Now or Never" felt more crisp and clean than it had in the original recording, and it was refreshing to hear a tuba take a pronounced role in the back rhythm for "Return to Sender."

Continue to page two for more of our review.

St. Louis Symphony
Remember when our symphony proved that it was better than Boston's symphony? That was fun.

It wasn't just the rockers that were tweaked with great results, though. "Love Me Tender" began with flutes and piccolos as fresh as the dawn, followed by strings that accented the "Ooooooohs" of the backing vocals. Wilson's bullfrog bass voice was the perfect lead for the tune, full of emotion and combining with the orchestration for a sound that was nearly hymn-like in its hopefulness and earnestness.

Likewise, "Can't Help Falling in Love" held a few surprises. Coulter's higher-pitched voice was quite different from Presley's deeper tones, but he had a theatrical quality (likely stemming from his acclaimed work in New York City) that sold the song. Moreover, the latter half featured the strings in an ever-undulating symphony of notes, themselves flowing "surely to the sea," as the tune goes, before building up to a final push with the horn section. Combined, it was what Presley might have sounded like on Broadway, and it was spectacular.

Really, the only song that fell a little short was "Blue Hawaii." Rodgers once again manned the piano and lead vocals ably, but the arrangement was a bit too close to the original and didn't seem to inspire much emotion in the audience. The culprit? No ukelele that we could discern. Elvis-loving Uncle Jesse on Full House surely would exclaim "Have mercy!" at this oversight.

A few minor hiccups aside, "The King: A Tribute to the Music of Elvis" was a worthy entry in the St. Louis Symphony's ever-appealing "Live at Powell Hall" series. Doing justice to the songs of one of modern rock & roll's ambassador's isn't an easy task, and using an orchestra to lightly reimagine the tunes might be a little scary to newcomers and purists. But like the King once sang, "We can't build our dreams on suspicious minds." For us, the experiment knocked our bobby socks clean off. We're definitely in love and all shook up.

See page three for critic's note and a setlist. QUOTE BOOK

* "... But first, I'm going to pull my sock up. I apologize, but my mother is here. I guess I know what I'm getting for Christmas this year." -- Coulter, thinking about sock garters before playing piano and singing an emotive "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"

* "Let's go to church!" -- Rodgers, introducing the gospel portion of the performance.

* "Grab your shakers and your knockers. Feel free to shake whatever you want to shake. Remember, what happens in Vegas stays in St. Louis." -- Coulter, Lessack and Wilson trading quips before "Viva Las Vegas."

* "Why do they need such a long break?" -- a male audience member, 11 minutes into the 20-minute intermission.

SETLIST

Act I

"Heartbreak Hotel" "Blue Suede Shoes" "All Shook Up" "Teddy Bear" "Don't Be Cruel" "Hound Dog" "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" "Jailhouse Rock" "Love Me Tender" "Blue Hawaii" "Loving You" "Can't Help Falling in Love" "G.I. Blues" "It's Now or Never" "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" "Return to Sender" Gospel medley: "How Great Thou Art," "Amazing Grace," "Peace in the Valley"

Act II

"See See Rider" "Burning Love" "Viva Las Vegas" "What Now My Love" "In the Ghetto" "Movin' into Graceland" "My Way" "An American Trilogy"

Encore

"Suspicious Minds"

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