On a recent sultry summer night in the Chicago suburbs, Sting enchanted the sold-out crowd with symphonic renditions of his Police and solo work. Ranging from hits to more obscure tracks, Sting and the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra breathed new life into his extensive catalog while performing at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois on July 18. Wearing black jeans and a tuxedo-like jacket, he looked as though he hasn’t aged a day since his time with the Police, and his voice sounded exactly as it did since his 1970s debut.
Sting is touring in support of his newest album, Symphonicities, a project that has its roots in Chicago. In 2008 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra invited him to perform with the outfit, rearranging his hits in a classical style. After the acclaimed concert, Sting appeared with the Philadelphia Orchestra to celebrate the 153rd anniversary of the Academy of Music. Fueled by these performances, Sting decided to record an album version of these shows with the Royal Philharmonic, and embarked on a worldwide tour. In addition to these musicians, he is also backed by guitarist Dominic Miller, percussionists Rhani Krija and David Cossin, bassist Ira Coleman, and vocalist Jo Lawry. The result is an intriguing combination of rock and classical, often adding emotional power to well-known tracks.
Highlights include “Englishman in New York,” a Nothing Like the Sun cut that already lends itself well to an orchestral makeover. The string section, combined with the alto saxophone, recreated Sting’s intended effect of walking down a typical New York sidewalk. One of the most radical transformations was a quiet but moody “Roxanne,” lending a sad overtone to the lyrics describing a prostitute. The Dream of the Blue Turtles’ “Russians” also benefited greatly from the Royal Philharmonic, their dramatic and bombastic playing evoking dark images of the Cold War era.
Some material adapted quite naturally to the classical treatment, such as the delicate “Shape of My Heart” and the subtle “Fields of Gold.” Perhaps the most jarring examples were the reworkings of Police materials, such the punk-tinged “Next to You” (from 1978′s Outlandos d’Amour). Sting broke out his piercing rock voice while the string section furiously worked to keep up with the rapid tempo. “King of Pain” also fared well, the strings duplicating the drum and bass solo in the song’s bridge. The crowd favorite “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” worked amazingly well, the orchestra adeptly recreating the beat.
“Moon Over Bourbon Street” contained an almost cinematic arrangement that gave the track a creepier, more dramatic air to lines such as “I must love what I destroy and destroy the thing I love.” But perhaps the concert’s loveliest moment occurred with Sting dueted with Lawry on “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” the Grammy-nominated song from the film Cold Mountain. Featuring a simple arrangement and perfectly blended voices, the song evokes the romance and passion from the original story. Not surprisingly, Sting ended the concert with the crowd-pleaser “Every Breath You Take.”
Encores included “Desert Rose,” which sounded more forceful and exotic with the Royal Philharmonic (although Cheb Mami’s gorgeous backing vocals were missed), and the 1993 Ten Summoner’s Tales track “She’s Too Good for Me” still rocked. Ending with the delicate “Fragile,” which nicely emphasized the beautiful chord changes through classical guitar, Sting demonstrated that his clear voice remains undimmed by time, and that his music packs an emotional punch over 20 years later.
In addition to well-known selections from his many albums, Sting also performed some songs that never found their way to albums. “Tomorrow We’ll See,” sung from the perspective of a transsexual prostitute, resembled film noir, while the previously unreleased 1999 “All Would Envy” receives a bossa nova makeover, suiting the subject matter (a May-December romance) well.
Not every song worked well with the classic overhaul, particularly the country-flavored “I Hung My Head” (which Sting proudly mentioned that Johnny Cash covered). The classical and country genres simply do not fit easily together.
With his Symphonicities tour, Sting proves that he enjoys experimenting with various musical forms, and this particular project largely succeeds. Judging from the Ravinia crowd’s enthusiastic response, Sting fans are quite happy to experience this phase of Sting’s long career. Sometimes reinvention can provide new perspectives and interpretations on familiar songs, and this concert showcased a clearly reinvigorated singer/songwriter who has breathed new life into his impressive catalog.