What the QC Symphony Orchestra calls “the party of the summer” is turning 40.
The Quad City Bank & Trust Riverfront Pops is Saturday, Aug. 20, at Davenport’s LeClaire Park. You can celebrate along the banks of the Mississippi with a choir-enhanced symphonic concert of the music of Elton John. The light knight’s greatest hits will include “Rocket Man,” “Madman Across the Water,” “Tiny Dancer,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.”
The spectacular event closes with traditional renditions of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever set to a brilliant fireworks display. For the first time, a 50-member QCSO (conducted by Ernesto Estigarribia) will partner with a rock band and vocalists from Jeans ‘n Classics, and a 15-member QC choir prepared by Jon Hurty.
“They were recommended to me by some other orchestras who had really positive experiences,” QCSO executive director Brian Baxter said recently. “So, we’re excited to work with them.”
Jeans ‘n Classics was founded in 1996 by Englishman Peter Brennan, who was heavily influenced by bands like the Beatles. He studied music composition and theory at Western University in London, Ontario where he now resides. During the ’70s and ’80s, he toured extensively throughout North America, establishing himself as a guitarist and music director with a variety of groups.
He also became an in-demand producer/arranger with Top 10 successes in the UK, producer awards and grants in Canada, where he was selected as a Juno Awards judge. Today, the Jeans ‘n Classics shows have over 35 different programs (from “Abbey Road” to The Who), using Brennan’s orchestral arrangements.
“It thrilled us when we were asked,” Brennan said recently of getting the QC Riverfront Pops for the first time. “It was described as, how would you like to do a lovely outdoor concert on the banks of the Mississippi? And I’m just thinking, yeah, you’re talking to a Canadian in the middle of the winter, so of course!”
Love the combination
Brennan has adored the sound of a rock band with an orchestra for a long time.
“I’ve always loved the sound of symphonic elements within a rock band,” he said, citing the full sonic scope of The Moody Blues as a key influence.
“I was into doing a bunch of studio work, because I’d gone to school for a period of time, studied music. But I also had this other side of me that was a rock and roll player,” Brennan said. “I kind of played both ends of the spectrum a little bit, but the dark side won out — that being the rock band.”
The Jeans ’n Classics family features some of the finest vocalists and instrumentalists in Canada and the U.S. Peter has also created and developed orchestra shows for a number of headliners of worldwide note, including Roger Hodgson (formerly of Supertramp) and Martin Fry of ABC who Peter performed with at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra.
The approach to combining world-class rock musicians and symphonies has been a game changer for orchestras in their quest to attract new and more expansive audiences.
“It’s just grown and grown. And we’ve been very fortunate, because the concept caught on with people,” Brennan said. “You have people who liked hearing the music that they grew up with, and at the same time experiencing this whole other side to it.
“So then you you get all those classic artists — classic pop, rock artists, like Elton and Billy Joel, Queen, Bowie, The Moody Blues and there’s a treasure trove here of material,” he said.
Jeans ’n Classics is a group of musicians who understand orchestra culture and are committed to help in the building of younger, loyal audiences for symphony orchestras across North America.
Not a tribute act
While most definitely not a tribute act, Jeans ‘n Classics faithfully interprets the music of legendary rock and pop albums and artists, with their own special and signature flair, according to its website.
Brennan said for each program, it’s a tricky balancing act.
“You don’t want to take what was a fabulous song and butcher it or destroyed by over-orchestrating it, or making it sound like elevator music or anything,” he said. “By the same token, you don’t want to bore the orchestra. You want them to be engaged and to be absolutely front and center with us.”
While John Regan plays piano, lead vocalist Jean Meilleur sings the Elton classics. Both men perform in several Jeans ‘n Classics shows, and have since nearly the start in the ‘990s.
“Jean Meilleur does everything from David Bowie to Woodstock,” Brennan said. “He’s a gifted vocalist and he doesn’t try and clone Elton, but he brings an extremely nice quality and soul to the whole thing.”
They don’t attempt a tribute to the iconic artists, by literally looking and sounding like them, he said. There will be no flashy Elton John glasses or costumes here.
“We want to make it very much an orchestral interpretation of this material,” Brennan said. “It’s all about the music, it’s all about the nostalgia, the memories, the chops, and oh by the way, listen to that orchestra roar. You know, we do a Queen show, but nobody’s going to come out and try and look like Freddie Mercury.”
Regan does sing lead vocal on the first Elton hit, 1970’s “Your Song.”
“He does a heartfelt, soulful version of ‘Your Song.’ He just goes for these things his way,” Brennan said. “He’s a completely different vocalist sound than Jean.”
“The most beautiful sound”
Brennan really loves the combination of orchestra with his pop-rock bands and vocalists.
“It’s just the most beautiful sound aesthetically speaking,” he said. “You get a ballad, you get something that’s gentle and you hear the woodwinds moving across the top end of the spectrum or you get something funky like ‘Honky Cat’ or ‘Take Me to the Pilot’ and the brass get their moments off the punch.”
“Of course, there’s the strings who can not only be beautiful, but also turn around and just be nasty. And by that I mean let’s take some of these guitar licks and have them doubled with the strings or have the strings take off so fast,” Brennan said. “So there’s an awful lot of drama. There’s an awful lot of impact and a lot of beauty in the in the textures that can come off in the orchestra. Suddenly, you know, you can be the best band ever.”
With big ballads like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” or “Tiny Dancer,” the sound can be operatic and massive, “but at the base of it all are these fabulous songs,” he said. “So if a person has never seen an orchestra, they get an amazing treat. And if they’ve seen an orchestra but never seen an orchestra with a rock band, it’s this whole other aspect and a unique animal.”
Brennan is fortunate since he lives in the hometown of Elton’s husband (David Furnish), London, Ontario, and last saw Elton in concert there six years ago. At 75, the real Elton is on his extended “Farewell Yellow Brick Road” world tour, which is due to end in July 2023.
Brennan plays guitar in the concert, and it’s a special thrill to hear and perform on his own arrangements.
“It’s an absolute complete ego stroke, it really is. It’s fabulous,” he said.
Brennan said he’s gotten great feedback from orchestra players, who enjoy the pops concerts as much as Mozart or John Williams.
“It’s just become a joy over the years, in terms of there’s very, very little situation where you get any pushback or anything other than wanting to come together and make a really good night out of the whole thing,” he said.
You can see the 19-song setlist for the Elton John show HERE. The chorus will be featured in the second half.
Get the details
Riverfront Pops will open gates at 4 p.m. At 6:30 p.m. will be the pre-show featuring the QC Youth Symphony Orchestra, and the main concert starts at 7:30 p.m.
The reserved plots of lawn (183 of them) up front have been sold out, for parties of 2, 6 and 10 patrons. Baxter said that most of all the 431 fixed bandshell seats are sold out, but there are plenty of general admission lawn seats available. Here’s the total number of tickets sold for the past three Riverfront Pops:
- 2019 (Rock Island Arsenal) – 7,933
- 2020 (socially-distanced at LeClaire Park) – 2,192
- 2021 – 4,071
Riverfront Pops general admission seats cost $22 in advance for adults and $5 for children between the ages of 3-13. Adult prices increase $3 on Friday, Aug. 19. Have a group of 15 or more? Learn about group discounts. Bandshell tickets cost $25.
For tickets and more information, click HERE.