Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Elton to Return to RAM for Organ Unveiling, USC Show Filmed for Doco

The Academy’s new 42-stop, three-manual symphonic organ, built by Orgelbau Kuhn of Switzerland will have its grand opening celebrations with Sir Elton John. The event will take place later next month.

Dressed in a sparkly frock coat, pink socks and blue shoes, Elton John lit up the stage Sept. 16 at Bovard Auditorium with a seven-piece band and four backup singers — and nearly 40 student musicians from the USC Thornton School of Music.

The Elton John Goes Back to School concert, a Vision and Voices Signature Event, was presented with USC Thornton and was free to USC students selected in a lottery held for the 1,235 seats.

Nineteen string players and a harpist from the USC Thornton Symphony played the first three songs: “Sixty Years On,” “The Greatest Discovery” and “Philadelphia Freedom.” Conducting them was prominent alumnus James Newton Howard DMA ’69, a prolific film composer and former member of John’s band. Later in the concert, students from the USC Thornton Chamber Singers and Brass Ensemble played on several songs from John’s recently released 30th solo album, The Diving Board. They were directed by USC Thornton’s Jo-Michael Scheibe, chair of choral music.

John called his new album “mature and reflective, the product of a 66-year-old man,” and also “full of inspiration from American jazz, blues, gospel, rock ’n’ roll and country.” T Bone Burnett, who produced the album, received a standing ovation when he spoke about their collaboration.

The concert was John’s idea. He’d performed with student musicians at his alma mater, Britain’s Royal Academy of Music, and decided to continue his support of music education in the United States. The school he chose: USC Thornton.

“Providing this kind of unbelievable experience for students that they can’t get anywhere else” is a strategic goal of the school, said USC Thornton Dean Robert A. Cutietta. “And, our students are fabulous and can live up to these professional opportunities.”

Between segments with the student bands, John answered questions posed by Grammy Foundation Vice President Scott Goldman and a few students. John talked freely about his relationship with the piano (“my friend or enemy all my life”), being inspired by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis, and how he knew even after five years of conservatory study that he would never be a classical pianist. (“I have very short hands. My fingers look like cocktail sausages.”)

He told students he “was in a band going nowhere” when he pushed past his shyness to answer a record company’s advertisement for songwriters and musicians. At the interview, he was handed an envelope plucked randomly from unopened stacks of submissions from songwriters and told to do something with the contents. They were lyrics from a then-unknown Bernie Taupin, who became his longtime lyricist.

“If that’s not an act of God, I don’t know what is,” John said.

He urged student musicians to play all sorts of music and not dismiss any genres out of hand. If you think you don’t like rap, he told the audience, you should see Eminem or Kanye West at work in the studio. “They’re like free-form jazz musicians.”

John advised students to challenge themselves. “Coasting is dangerous. I can’t just play ‘Bennie and the Jets’ over and over again.”

But he did play “Bennie and the Jets,” as well as “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues” and other megahits, changing them up with jazzy piano breaks or a call and response with a backup singer. He ended with a dramatic solo version of “Rocket Man.”

John was complimentary to the students musicians, telling them they “sound amazing,” clapping for them and blowing them a kiss during the concert. At the afternoon sound check, he walked up the risers to the brass players and vocalists and shook each student’s hand.

Although USC Thornton has a program focused on popular music performance, all the students on the stage are studying classical music. John said he realized decades ago that rock ’n’ roll and classical strings can mix. The USC Thornton musicians had only to look to the two young classically trained electronic cellists who tour with John’s band to realize that they might have careers beyond a classical repertoire.

Freshman Leah Hansen of Los Angeles, a cellist, called the opportunity to play on stage with John — and the cellists from Croatia — “awesome.”

One of the proudest Trojans in the audience was Adam Chester, a 1985 USC Thornton graduate in composition who’s worked with John since 2005. The rehearsal pianist, he helped on the arrangement of one of the new songs, “Home Again,” with the student musicians. “It’s a small orchestra, but they sound amazing,” he said. Chester said he was thrilled with the expanded offerings such as popular music at USC Thornton. “They are much more hip to doing things like this.”

The choir and brass students will be performing “Home Again” with John on the Emmy Award broadcast Sept. 22, said Chris Sampson, associate dean for popular music and music industry studies at USC Thornton.

Students raved about the concert, and some said they’re longtime fans of John.

“I could listen to ‘Your Song’ for hours — and have,” said Dylan Shapiro of Los Angeles, a junior communications major.

“I grew up listening to him,” said sophomore biology major Andrea Muñoz of Whittier, Calif. “I just transferred in and I think it is so incredible that we were able to have such an icon perform for us.”

Brian Lentz, a senior marine biology major from Iowa City, Iowa, was ecstatic about getting into the concert. “I’ve been to several spectacular Visions and Voices events here, and I’m still so amazed that USC can bring people like this to the students for free. I don’t think you can get this anywhere else in the country.”

As a bonus, after the concert, free copies of The Diving Board were given to everyone in the audience, courtesy of Capitol Records.

- See more at: USC News

Last night, as students and fans filed into USC's gothic Bovard Auditorium to hear a performance by Elton John, ushers at the door handed out earplugs. The legendary British rocker wouldn't be dialing much back during two and a half hours in the campus theater, as he roared through songs stretching from his early hits to his upcoming album, The Diving Board.

Arriving in a sparkling black suit, John was joined by his touring band and student musicians from the USC School of Music, including string players, a brass quartet and a chorus of singers. From the beginning, the singer-pianist didn't limit himself to his canon of hits, but stretched back further to the earliest piano songs that connect directly with his new album.

He opened with "Sixty Years On" and "The Greatest Discovery," both understated ballads from his 1970 debut, Elton John, though each erupted with moments of forceful wailing from the singer. "Right now we're going to turn the volume up," he said as his band and string section shook the room with "Philadelphia Freedom."

The night was titled "Elton John Goes Back to School," part of the university's Visions and Voices series. Conducting the show was his former keyboardist James Newton Howard, now a busy film composer (The Sixth Sense, The Hunger Games) and an advisory board member to the USC music department. Drummer Nigel Olsson, with John since 1969, pounded the beat.

For 1971's "Tiny Dancer," a modest hit at the time of release, John got the night's first standing ovation. The strings provided depth, not sweetness, while longtime John sideman Davey Johnstone riffed on double-neck electric guitar.

"Levon" began with muscular runs on piano as the strings kicked into place, and John nearly leapt from his piano bench as he stretched out with melodic raging and banging on the keys. Before playing an emotional "Your Song," John told fans of the "huge step forward" he and lyricist Bernie Taupin felt it represented.

The band left the stage and The Diving Board producer T Bone Burnett spoke of his first time seeing John live onstage at the Troubadour in 1970, then at the center of a vibrant local folk scene. "This young English cat came into town with a trio and blew the place apart . . . I was sitting about 20 feet from him. It stayed with me – the feeling, the sound, the crazy, wild attack. It was beautiful and free."

John returned for a half-hour Q&A with Scott Goldman, executive vice president of the Grammy Foundation, who asked the rocker about his earliest inspirations, including Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

"That's what I wanted to do – I wanted to beat the shit out of the piano," John said to laughs. "Everyone who came out of England has always loved American music. It was the best music, it still is the best music, and the roots of American music – the jazz, the blues, gospel, rock & roll, country."

Of The Diving Board John insisted, "It's a record by a 66-year-old man. It's not a record by a 26-year-old guy who made 'Rocket Man.' It's full of mature songs and songs that are reflective. There's no 'Philadelphia Freedom' on it. I've changed.

"I don't get played on the radio anymore, and quite rightly so, because it's other people's turn. At my age I can do what I want."

He does get inspiration from new music, he said, and described working in the studio with Eminem and Kanye West, comparing them to "free-jazz musicians."

Looking into the mostly young crowd, John added, "There is an energy you have in the audience called youth that can change the world. I used to have it. I have energy now, but it's not like the energy you have in your twenties, and you're fearless and you go for broke."

The night's next segment was dedicated to five songs from his new album, beginning with "Oscar Wilde Gets Out," with a muscular vocal and full-band arrangement that was louder than the original. "Can't Stay Alone Tonight" forcefully collided country with romantic R&B. "Mexican Vacation (Kids in the Candlelight)" was passionate American gospel, with a rollicking piano sound that was like John diving into the pews with Professor Longhair.

After "Home Again," his band jumped into "The Bitch Is Back," and John hopped on top of his piano to get the crowd back on its feet to close with roaring hits from the Seventies and Eighties: "Bennie and the Jets," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," a defiant "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me." During "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues," John got into a soulful call-and-response with backup singer Jean Witherspoon, and Johnstone tossed off his tie.

The bandleader closed the night alone at the piano, performing "Rocket Man" like it was the saddest song he ever wrote. John sounded like a wounded saloon singer, wailing at the mic, pounding the familiar melody with extra weight and heart.

Then Johnstone stepped back onstage with an acoustic guitar, which seemed to catch John by surprise. John waved him off. His own voice and piano were already enough to overpower anything else.

- Rolling Stone

Chris Sampson, vice dean of the division of contemporary music at Thornton, said Captiol Records reached out to USC to host the event and a simple sign-up approach was used — with limits based on needed instrumentation and vocals — to select students to perform.

“We definitely had more students want to perform than we were able to accommodate,” Sampson said. "However, we were very pleased to be able to put together a small orchestra from USC Thornton Symphony and we also brought in some members of the USC Thornton Chamber Choir."

- Neon Tommy

Elton John has his short fingers to thank for moving him away from classical music to pop. He told students Monday night at the University of Southern California that his fingers are like “cocktail sausages” and are not long enough for a career in classical music.

Elton gave a free two-and-a-half-hour concert at USC to promote his new studio album, The Diving Board, and to demonstrate his relevance in a musical world that’s changed since his big hits of the 1970s and ‘80s.

He told students to listen to everything, like he does. He said when he goes home he listens to Queens of the Stone Age or Disclosure. He raved about 16-year-old Lorde and 22-year-old country star Hunter Hayes, saying Hayes is “unreal.” And he told any music students in the audience to listen to all styles of music and “not dismiss any genre.”

Elton’s concert was mixed with a few questions and answers with students — like, why did he change his name? Born Reginald Dwight, Elton said it was a “no brainer” because he “hated that f**king name.” However, he said that doesn’t stop Eric Clapton and Chris Martin from calling him “Reginald.”

For an audience of mostly college students, Elton’s first song at Monday’s event was about aging: “Sixty Years On.” Now 66, he was about the age of the 1,200 students in the audience when the tune was released in 1970.

Elton followed that with “The Greatest Discovery,” with lyrics he says he didn’t relate to until he had kids. He followed that with “Philadelphia Freedom,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Levon” and “Your Song” before breaking for the Q&A.

Five songs from The Diving Board followed, ending that group of tunes with his new single, “Home Again.” Then Elton dove back into his classics: “The Bitch Is Back,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and “I’m Still Standing.” Then for an encore, Elton shooed away his guitarist and performed “Rocket Man” as a solo at the piano.

For much of the concert, Elton was backed not only by his own band and back-up singers but also by the USC student symphony and chamber singers.

Monday night’s event is expected to be turned into a documentary.

- Classic Hits & Oldies

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