Led Zeppelin: Links Rock’n’Roll With Classical


Writer Kenneth LaFave

The beat goes on at The Phoenix Symphony, but strings and horns have been added. The symphony’s Legend Series, which presents tribute bands with symphonic backing, is a cash cow for the organization, a way of reaching non-symphonic music lovers and at the same time expanding the taste of its classical audience. The three-concert series this season has already brought a Journey tribute and an Eagles concert to Phoenix Symphony Hall and concludes on March 31 with the Rolling Stones.

The idea of combining classic rock with a symphony orchestra has been so popular that even a non-series concert featuring the music of Led Zeppelin has been added, scheduled for March 4 at the Mesa Amphitheatre.

“This is a new audience for us,” says Jim Ward, president and CEO of The Phoenix Symphony Association.

“The Legend series began a couple of years ago and had immediate success. We’ve been able to bring down the median age of the symphony audience overall, and with the Legends series, the lowering is dramatic. The median age for a Legends concert is 39, compared to the 59 or our Masters series,” says Ward, which presents music of the great classical composers from Bach to Beethoven to the 20th century.

Ward’s background in marketing has led to the symphony’s increased ticket sales and public profile since he came onboard in 2012. A veteran of LucasArts (where he was president) and Lucasfilm (where he was senior vice-president), Ward’s approach balances the integrity of classical music-making with an eye for reaching new patrons.

The Legend series does the latter job by reaching out to companies packaging tribute bands with orchestral arrangements.

“These groups come from different production companies that cover rock bands from the Beatles on. In certain areas of the country, it doesn’t work. But for us, it sells very well indeed, and manages to get people in the audience who’ve never been to the symphony before,” Ward says.

The age spread of the Legends audience is wide.

“We get 60-year-old rockers dancing in the aisles, and we get their 20- and 30-year-old children,” says Ward.

The arrangements don’t just put the symphony in the back seats, laying down chords, but involves the players as co-participants in the music.

In a way, says Ward, it’s not too different from what groups like Emerson, Lake and Palmer did in the 1970s, incorporating symphonic instruments in their music.

The Led Zeppelin concert will feature songs such as “Stairway to Heaven,” “Immigrant Song,” “Black Dog” and others. The Rolling Stones concert will bring “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and additional hits.

Considering the concerts’ appeal to both young and old, Ward finds the tribute-band-with-orchestra concerts “oddly enough, a kind of family series.”

What’s the bottom line for symphony orchestra concert repertoire?

“Music is for everyone,” Ward says. “So we serve up something for all tastes.”

Phoenix Symphony Legend Series
Mesa Amphitheatre
263 N. Center St., Mesa
March 4
Saturday: 7 p.m.


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