Sting smiles at the orchestra in front of him. “This is the biggest band I’ve ever had,” he says. “There are 50 of us, including me, on stage.”
I’ve just asked the singer why he has gone classical for a greatest-hits tour that starts on June 2 in Vancouver -- also the starting point in 2007 for the reunion tour of his ex-band the Police -- then crosses North America and swings across Europe through November, with more dates likely.
“I’m like a kid with a new train set,” Sting says, taking a break from a morning rehearsal in London’s Abbey Road Studios. “It is so much fun having all these cello players, violinists and oboe players.” The U.K.-born rock star has just taken the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra through a rehearsal of “An Englishman in New York.”
“I don’t drink coffee, I take tea my dear,” he sings before sipping from a mug. The strings transform the jazzy tribute to writer Quentin Crisp into something that will go down a storm when Sting plays the Metropolitan Opera House on July 13 and 14. The Police signed off in New York in 2008 after a final $340 million tour -- the group has sold more than 50 million albums. The promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc. will expect the new shows to add to Sting’s fortune, estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List in April at 180 million pounds ($258 million).
“It’s exciting for me,” says Sting, “because a lot of songs I would not do with a rock band I could do with this kind of setup. They are being brought to life in a different kind of way, evolving as the musicians play them. They seem to have a new life and mood and so I am just going with that.” He looks relaxed and tanned in a white shirt and black sweater.
Sting has been flirting with classical music since his 2006 album of John Dowland Baroque music. Last year, he and his wife Trudie Styler appeared in “Twin Spirits,” a narrative-and-music celebration of Robert Schumann, while the CD “If on a Winter’s Night_” continued the search. Now recently shorn of the heavy beard he sported on that album cover, he is looking a remarkably youthful 58 and will celebrate his 59th after a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall this October.
He promises a CD of the new material on July 13 under the expected title “Symphonicities.” Fortunately, the music is better than the pun on “Synchronicity.”
“I was asked by the Chicago Symphony to put a program together of my music,” Sting tells me. “I would never have thought of this myself. I was very keen that the musicians were challenged, that they weren’t just sawing away behind a pop ballad.”
He repeated the performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra for a celebration of the 153rd anniversary of the Academy of Music, describing it as a career highlight, before teaming up with the Royal Philharmonic, which he calls one of the best ensembles in the world.
Sting’s keen to show that he’s still on top of today’s music, having sung with everyone including Lady Gaga at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert this month for his and Styler’s Rainforest Fund. Still, for the Abbey Road rehearsal and tour he duets with singer Jo Lawry on the Gaelic-style “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” which he originally wrote and performed with Alison Krauss for the movie “Cold Mountain.” He also tries the orchestra out on the doomy Johnny Cash double-death song “I Hung My Head.”
Before things get too serious, he cheers things up by announcing an upbeat “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” telling the conductor Steven Mercurio, “If you wanna dance, be my guest.” The song, already released as a digital single, gets a round of applause from the studio onlookers, and Sting jokes “I think there should be a law against singing before 12 midday.”
The orchestrations are carefully planned. Sting recalls how he had tried using the acclaimed drummer Vinnie Colaiuta --“he had to be in a Perspex box because every time he hit the snare it obliterated any subtlety in the arrangement” -- before settling on percussionist David Cossin, who joins Sting’s long-time guitarist Dominic Miller and bassist Ira Coleman.
“There are some surprises,” says Sting. “One of my arrangers, Rob Mathes, sitting here, said to me ‘I want to arrange a song called ‘Next to You,’ which was the first track on the first Police album. It’s a sort of punky four-chords, rock-and-roll thrash. I said, ‘You are out of your mind, how could we possibly do that?’ and he said, ‘I have an instinct.’ And it’s one of the best songs of the set -- you actually have these fiddlers playing rock and roll. We should do it for you. Wanna hear it?”
We do. “Nice and loud,” Sting implores the players. The strings bash away. This isn’t the sound of an orchestra “freaking out” that the Beatles wanted on “A Day in the Life,” recorded in the same studio, though it comes close. Mercurio later describes it: “Rosin is flying, bow hairs are being shredded like crazy, everybody’s having a great time.”
It’s the best answer to fans who question Sting’s direction and equate strings with Muzak. The first thing I say to Sting after the performance is “wow!” This tour is one to watch.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)