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The marriage of a 70’s progressive rock band from the Midwest and a college symphony orchestra of southern Appalachia is not one for which many would predict success. Kansas and the Appalachian Symphony Orchestra, however, pulled it off, presenting a rare kind of concert to a sold-out house. Nor is this attempt unique; Kansas members are in the middle of an entire tour, presented by D’Addario, that consists primarily of collaborations between the band and local collegiate orchestras.
Billy Greer, bass player, vocalist, and spokesperson for the evening, expressed in heartfelt terms the goal of this tour: to raise support, funds, and awareness of college music programs around the country. With so many music programs nationwide undergoing cuts or being cut themselves as academic programs deal with slim budgets, the need is clear. And part of the solution? Incorporate college orchestras as an integral part of a symphonic concert tour. Kansas deserves to be applauded and thanked for tackling such a crippling problem for today’s artistic scene in such a creative way.
While the band’s intentions are clearly laudable, the purely musical challenge of creating an effective symphonic rock concert is not one to be taken lightly. Kansas members discovered an arranger and conductor ideally suited for the calling: Larry Baird. His orchestrations are generally heavy on strings and brass, as can be expected, but clearly and mercifully not as mind-numbing for the orchestra members as many pop concert arrangements. The ASO had been prepared for the concert by director Eduardo Vargas, but adapted well to a different style of conducting. Unfortunately, these contributions were not always set off to their best advantage. As often happens in crossover concerts, the mix was dominated by the band, and the orchestra was all but inaudible for many of the songs. In addition, Steve Walsh’s use of the synthesizer often detracted from the orchestral contribution. Since a good pad really serves the same purpose as a string section, a little more sensitivity in this area would have given both band and orchestra more clarity of sound.
Even so, Kansas and the ASO were not as far from achieving that strange synthesis of styles as one might think. To begin with, the band’s characteristic stylistic allusions and contrapuntal instrumentals are more suited to symphonic treatment than that of many other groups. Phil Ehart’s connection and communication with Baird was crucial to linking the styles of the small and large ensembles. David Ragsdale almost single-handedly crossed all of the musical and cultural barriers facing this collaboration. His electric violin solos gave the whole concert an edgy, colorful character and provided an essential auditory link between the different symphonic and rock sounds.
Tunes included “Reason to Be,” “On the Other Side,” “Hold On,” “Cheyenne Anthem,” “Icarus,” and “Miracles Out of Nowhere.” The rousing finale mash-up of “Fighting Fire with Fire” and, of course, “Carry On, My Wayward Son” included a very effective a cappella opening chorus of the latter.
The highest point of the evening was, not surprisingly, “Dust in the Wind,” but for a different reason than one might expect. While the live rendition had lost some of the subtlety of the original recording, the orchestral parts were the best-written of the evening, and the addition of new elements gave an old favorite new appeal. In an extensive instrumental interlude, David Ragsdale was joined by Appalachian student and cellist Everett Hardin. Ragsdale and Hardin improvised, call and response style, a deeply felt, raw, yet sensitive duet. At this point, the very different groups onstage did not just co-exist: they truly collaborated. To say the audience expressed enthusiastic appreciation is putting it all too mildly.
Note: We are pleased to have one of our writers now living in Northwest NC. Chelsea Stith was our first intern, at Meredith College; she's now a full-fledged CVNC critic who is in graduate school at ASU.