A rocker’s first symphony


Casey Crescenzo of


presents his first symphony

For fans that want something more

So proclaimed the promotional sticker on one of several dozen CDs in the new release bin at Newbury Comics in Northampton, where I stop in every Tuesday, new release day.  And I have to say, the sticker did its job.  I’d heard and liked a couple of CDs by the prog-ish Rhode Island-based The Dear Hunter (not to be confused with Deerhunter, Deer Tick, Deerhoof, Matthew Dear or Loney dear).  Now their lead guy has written a symphony?  Good for him, though I thought it a bit much to promote it as “his first,” as if others will now follow at Haydnesque pace.  And the final bit, about “fans that want something more” — that’s me!  Who says marketing doesn’t pay off?  I bit.

That’s the front cover at the top of this post.  The back cover informs us that the piece was “performed by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, Mikel Toms, conductor.”  For those who just got excited at the notion that a real live European orchestra would pick up a work by an American rocker, relax.  As my darling wife says in such cases, “for money, you can get.”  And the Brno Philharmonic, like many other orchestras in Eastern Europe, gets less money than most, hence their near-ubiquity on inexpensive CDs and vanity projects.  Their recording costs are less, too.  The Brno Philharmonic has found a lucrative market for its services, and shouldn’t be begrudged a single koruna of their earnings.

Then, at the bottom of the back cover, they tell us that the music was “composed and arranged by Casey Crescenzo.”  You don’t see this kind of thing very often on classical CDs.  One normally assumes without being told that the work was not only composed by its composer, but that he/she also did the arrangements (i.e., orchestrations).  Indeed, it’s only the exceptions to that rule that get pointed out, e.g., the many recordings of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” orchestrated by Maurice Ravel.

But in the non-classical spheres, including rock, pop and Broadway, it’s not to be assumed that the composers do their own arranging.  Indeed, from such legends as Nelson Riddle and Robert Russell Bennett to the many mostly anonymous folks who help make movie and TV soundtracks sound so good, arranging has long been both a noble art and a very dignified profession.  And it’s especially not to be assumed that pop and rock musicians do their own arrangements when they attempt symphonic scores.  In fact, and unfortunately, it can’t even be assumed that such “composers” (I use the scare-quotes advisedly) have mastered the rudiments of music, as I detailed in one of my old NEPR blogs.

Having no clue as to the sharpness of Casey Crescenzo’s classical chops, I decided to listen to his symphony without prejudice.  What I heard was inoffensive, unexceptionable and not glaringly incompetent.  But boring?!  Everything, from tempos to orchestration to harmonic idiom, stuck to a nice, safe middle course.  Not a single moment struck me as original, or surprising, or moving. There were some fairly pleasant melodic ideas, but as for symphonic development — nada.

A fairly prominent solo piano part (uncredited — indeed, the CD package includes no further background information) might have helped if it weren’t the most rudimentary, least virtuosic piano writing I’ve ever heard in such a piece.  There wasn’t even enough there for trashy, campy fun, as in Richard Addinsell’s immortal “Warsaw Concerto.”  If someone had told me that “Amour & Attrition” was a rejected and rediscovered early ballet suite by, say, Aram Khachaturian (of “Gayane” and “Sabre Dance” fame), I might have believed it for a second.  But in the end, Crescenzo’s first symphony isn’t even that exciting.

And that’s when I googled around from some background info on Crescenzo.  What did I find?  Sure enough, the dude can’t read or write music.  But with the right toys — voilà!  He’s a symphonist!  And so can you be, right?

Listen, I’m not here to put the Monty Python foot down on Casey Crescenzo’s “attempt to grow.”  Sure enough, his symphony has made it to the top ten of several CD charts, not that it takes very many units sold for that to happen.  Nor am I saying that rock musicians have no business trying classical scores.  Some, such as Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and The National’s Bryce Dessner have written some terrific classical pieces.  But these composers, unlike Crescenzo, actually have something interesting to say in the classical field and, one way or another, acquired enough skill to cultivate and shape their ideas into cogent, coherent long-form works.  That’s not too much to ask for, is it?  (I’ll get to some of Greenwood’s and Dessner’s music in a future post, as well as a forthcoming classical CD by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry.)

But never mind how the piece came about or who wrote it.  Here’s the deal:  If The Dear Hunter did rock concerts and CDs as safe and boring (not to mention minimally competent) as Crescenzo’s symphony, they’d have a fan base of approximately zero.  Why should Crescenzo think he can get away with boring classical music, or even want to?  Classical music may need all the help it can get, but it already has enough boring pieces, thanks.

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