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FEATURE | Can We Talk About Classical Crossover?

By Anya Wassenberg on March 13, 2018

Classical crossover artist Lindsey Stirling has topped the category of Classical Albums in Billboard and reached number 79 on the Billboard 200.
Classical crossover artist Lindsey Stirling’s latest album has topped the category of Classical Albums in Billboard and reached number 79 on the Billboard 200.

This is, without question, the most ridiculous list of “classical” music that I’ve ever read. Piano Guys?  Two Cellos?? Jackie Evancho??? ELVIS????? At least Elvis was a great performer, if not remotely classical. The rest are nothing more than fake musicians. — Bill from the United States

Bill wasn’t alone in his negative reaction to an online list of the best-selling classical and crossover albums of 2017 taken from the industry standard Billboard classical charts. That list includes Gregorian chants from the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, Shall We Dance, an album that incorporates classical repertoire along with music from movies like The Godfather, by classical popularist André Rieu, Rise, by The Texas Tenors, who turn their golden voices to material like the Eagles hit “Desperado” and incorporate country/classical mash-ups in their original material – and everything in between. Reality TV star Jackie Evancho released an album of movie songs, and Elvis is still a hit singing with an orchestra. The February 2018 Billboard crossover chart includes the soundtrack for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and a collaboration between Annie Lennox and the Kronos Quartet.

This ain’t your parent’s classical music

Just what is classical crossover? Essentially, it is a genre that uses classical vocal and instrumental techniques for non-classical material like pop music. That’s the basic model that has made artists like Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman famous and filled concert halls for decades.

As a point of fact, it looks like Bill from the United States may be more and more of a minority as classical crossover releases continue to rack up solid sales figures and grow in both diversity and popularity.

“I think it’s become increasingly popular for our listeners.” Paul Thomas is Program and Music Director at Toronto’s 96.3FM, the city’s only full-time classical music station. He also hosts “Pop Classics!” every Sunday, a show that features TV, movie, and video game soundtracks, along with instrumental versions of pop songs.

The station’s blend of traditional and crossover classics is finding its audience as evidenced by the most recent numbers, as Thomas reports. 96.3FM comes in as the second most listened to commercial radio station in the Toronto. Crossover may be one reason why, even though it still forms a minority of the station’s playlists. Paul notes that there may be one or two classical crossover tracks played per hour, as opposed to eight or more of the traditional music. “It’s still our bread and butter.” Crossover may be the bridge that brings in a newer demographic, however. “It’s almost like the gateway drug,” he says. “People find something that is different from the other modern music choices on their radio dial.”

When the station began to air more classical crossover material years ago, there were a few angry calls, Thomas recalls. “For a while, I was getting calls from purists,” he says. “Not anymore.” After a discussion, he says those callers often change their minds. “They usually come away with an understanding. For a lot of people, we are their introduction to classical music.”

Paul Thomas, Program and Music Director at 96.3FM
Paul Thomas, Program and Music Director at 96.3FM

In making that introduction to classical music, he says the station has adopted specific strategies. When playing crossover tracks, the radio hosts often pair them with traditional classics – such as playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and “The Legend of Zelda” video game music, back to back.

“All of a sudden, they’re fans of Beethoven along with Legends of Zelda,” he says. Paul likens the effect to the surge of interest that occurred in classic jazz tracks once young hip hop artists began to sample and popularize the older music for a new generation.

“You do get a level of gatekeeping in the industry,” he acknowledged. “There’s a larger conversation to be had about the state of classical music.” Still, the seminal work of a Chopin or Debussy will never be overshadowed by the new genre. “These composers are going to be around forever anyway.” Crossover has helped to draw younger listeners. “The more we can use it, the more people will be attracted to it.”

Over the decades, classical crossover has grown in popularity with a new generation of artists as well as listeners. Nowadays, the label is becoming something of an unwieldy catch-all term that doesn’t really do justice to the sheer range and variety of music that falls under its umbrella. There are acts like Black Violin, who combine classical string techniques with hip hop music. They’ve played alongside Kanye West and Alicia Keys, and their 2015 album, Stereotypes, debuted at #1 on Billboard’s classical crossover chart — and #4 on the Billboard R&B chart. It’s a line blurring genre where virtually anything can be incorporated, opening up new horizons for classically trained musicians and singers.

The birth of the Classical ‘boy band’

After studying at the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory, tenor Joey Niceforo was finishing off the second year of his training in opera at the University of Toronto’s Opera Division — and contemplating the optional third year of the program — when he got an interesting call through some connections he’d made via a music agent.

The call came from Jill Ann Siemens, who was then in the process of putting together The Canadian Tenors (now just The Tenors) in 2004. Though his expectation was still to pursue a career in the opera, Joey was also a fan of singers like Frank Sinatra, so he was intrigued.

“She asked if I would audition on the phone,” he recalls. Then, Jill flew him to Victoria, BC for an in-person audition, but a persistent bout of laryngitis nixed the idea. “I was hired based on my phone audition.”

A tour was already arranged, and there was no time to spare. “I went on the road right away for two weeks,” he says. Directly after that, with studio time already booked, Joey played his part in recording the first Canadian Tenors album for Warner Bros. “It all happened within about a month,” he marvels.

Joey Niceforo
Joey Niceforo

Even though he was soon hooked on the concert experience as an artist, it wasn’t an easy transition to make. “I had never performed this kind of work before,” he says. He admits that it took him a couple of years to get over the fact that, as a trained opera singer, he was belting out pop tunes and other non-operatic material. When he wasn’t on tour with The Canadian Tenors, he’d take on performances with Opera in Concert to try to stay current in both genres.

Classical crossover remained a challenge for some time. Operatic singing, naturally, strives for the kind of volume that will carry over an orchestra. Pop music is very different in scope. “Everything was much smaller.” He took lessons in non-classical singing to find out how to use his vocal instrument in a way other than the opera program had taught him. “After a while, it made sense.”

It also meant a choice. The last opera Joey recalls performing in was a production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. He’d invited a friend to the dress rehearsal, and afterwards asked them whether he could be heard above the orchestra. To his dismay, his friend told him no. “I had to do one or the other,” he realized. Crossover had him hooked.

“I really loved the concert aspect,” he explains. As an artist, classical crossover provides an unusual freedom of expression. That includes choosing the material for the whole show, without the usual limitations of a role in an opera. He also enjoys the audience interaction, as opposed to the theatrical separation of performer and audience in opera. And, unlike any other genre, physical CD sales in the classical and crossover field are still fairly robust, another perk.

The move to crossover has led to a busy career. Joey Niceforo’s latest CD, Priceless, due for release on April 13, 2018, was recorded at London’s Abbey Road studio with an 80-piece orchestra backing him up. “I still pinch myself — it’s so amazing,” he says. By any measure, it’s a pretty sweet gig.


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