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MSO Performs the Music of David Bowie

Dec. 9, 2016

Dec. 12, 2016
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Photo credit: Kelsea McCulloch
Memorial tribute performances are a tricky tightrope to walk. On the one hand you want to honor the original material, but on the other there’s almost an unwritten expectation that you’ll inject some of your own personality into the proceedings, since, like any eulogy, it’s about the relationship between you and the deceased.

Thinking like that, the prospect of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra paying tribute to David Bowie, as announced a few weeks after his untimely death in January, was an exciting one. It’s easy to imagine symphonic arrangements of just about any song: timpani’s driving the cinematic dynamics of “Life on Mars,” woodwinds recreating the mellow lope and deep textures of “Sound + Vision,” the elegiac “Blackstar” as a dark, dramatic string-section workout. That’s just an example obviously, the point being that the possibilities are endless, and with an artist as open as Bowie, you’ve got an even broader license for risk-taking. Or you could just phone in the hits, because that other stuff sounds hard.

As the lights dimmed in the regal confines of the Riverside Theater, the lead guitar player stepped forward to play on the conductor with a Tony Visconti-like solo, the last indication that this might turn out to be something interesting, or at the very least ambitious. No sooner had he took his place and raised his wand before a generic lead-singer, sporting the skinniest of all possible jeans, burst from the wings with some variation on the cliché “How ya’ll doing tonight!?” Once they collectively launched into a thoroughly uninspired version of “Rebel Rebel,” the course was clear: by-the-numbers covers of the man’s biggest selling songs, tarted up with some added string parts. As they progressed through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s (and absolutely nothing else), it became more and more apparent that this was simply a pretentious karaoke cash-in and little else. How long could it possibly have taken these world-class musicians to learn these softball supporting parts? A couple listens through Changes one and two?

The Albuquerque-born, hipster-styled singer, when he wasn’t straining to match Bowie’s impeccable phrasing while also maintaining his affected English lilt, told various half-formed anecdotes apparently meant to illustrate his deep connection to the music. It’s difficult to tell exactly how hearing “Blue Jean” on blue vinyl qualifies as a story at all, but by the time he wondered aloud why a man as famous as Bowie might write the song “Fame,” these interludes were basically incomprehensible word salad. As soon as you began wondering, “Who is this guy again?” though, they were off on another rote rendition of another radio smash, anything approaching a deep cut being verboten. In any case, the half-full balcony seemed to be enjoying themselves, whenever they weren’t being arbitrarily blinded by super bright lights, although watching people grimace and shield their eyes was about as entertaining as anything onstage. Crass, boring and at times simply laughable, the show had his music, but none of his restless creativity. David Bowie deserves better.

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