It’s not a stretch to say this weekend’s trio of Best of Queen Pops Series concerts by the Victoria Symphony and the seven-piece rock band from Jeans ‘n Classics have been the orchestra’s most anticipated of the season, from a standpoint of broad interest.
From the symphony neophytes who had never attended one of their concerts at the Royal Theatre or elsewhere (Symphony Splash excluded), to symphony regulars, most likely had no idea quite what they were in for. Many newcomers were there due to a keen interest in the music of legendary rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury, whose rise was entertainingly documented in the Oscar-winning film Bohemian Rhapsody (still playing at the IMAX Victoria).
From the get-go many in the packed theatre Friday night reacted to Jeans ‘n Classics lead vocalist Michael Shotton’s banter like they were at a rock concert, which they truly were. Those inspired to get up and dance at the front of the theatre were, in typical Royal and McPherson style, quickly told to return to their seats, leading to a chorus of boos for the ushers.
The reminder that this wasn’t your usual arena rock show, however, did little to dampen the spirits of the crowd.
While Shotton showed tremendous range and ability to cover Mercury, the first half of the concert saw his singing slightly overpower the associate conductor Joey Pietraroia-led symphony, which may have disappointed those hoping to see the classically trained musicians shine right away in this unique rock scenario.
That may have been due in part to the choice of material. The group opened with the lesser-known “One Vision” and “It’s a Kind of Magic,” then got the crowd involved with bigger radio hits like “Killer Queen,” “Radio Ga Ga” (the source of Lady Gaga’s name, according to Shotton), “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Another One Bites the Dust” and others from the Queen catalogue.
While symphony/Queen fans could appreciate the nuances of adding strings and other orchestration to such numbers, VS newcomers may have got their first real sense of what the orchestral musicians added to the mix when the trumpet section was featured playing the synthesizer solo part in “I Want to Break Free.”
After intermission 20 singers of University of Victoria’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble joined the group on stage. The addition of the young singers proved a perfect way to handle the complex vocal arrangements in Queen music.
The collective group led off what Shotton called the “anthemic” second half of the show with “We Will Rock You”/”We Are the Champions,” getting full participation from the enthusiastic audience in the stomping and clapping department.
The chorus shone in “Flash” and “I Want it All,” giving a real sense of vocal power to the proceedings, to which the charismatic Shotton appeared supremely impressed.
After performing the beautiful Brian May-penned ballad “Who Wants to Live Forever” and Mercury’s rousing “Don’t Stop Me Now,” the group launched into the highly anticipated finale, their thrilling six-minute rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that again strongly featured the vocal chorus.
The encore songs of “Bicycle Race” and “Fat-Bottomed Girls” sent the already happy crowd home with bigger smiles on their faces.
From the rock perspective, Jeans ‘n Classics performed the tribute material virtually flawlessly, from the guitar work to the piano to the rhythms. And the symphony provided exactly what one might expect from this group of professional musicians: tight, tasteful and fun accompaniment that perfectly rounded out the presentation.
A number of people in earshot were heard to say it was their first time seeing the Victoria Symphony, which made me feel this special effort to try something quite different was paying off for the VS. At the end of the day one would believe the orchestra did a great job converting more people to the joy and beauty of symphonic music.
There are still a few tickets available for tonight’s show (8 p.m.) and the Sunday matinee (2 p.m.), but you can visit rmts.bc.ca or call the box office at 250-386-6121 to find out for sure.