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Ex-Police drummer aspires to ‘light up the stage’ with Pittsburgh Symphony

Mark Kanny
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Shayne Gray
Composer Stewart Copeland

Stewart Copeland intends to shake up Heinz Hall, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is paying him to do it.

The founder and drummer of the rock band The Police is no stranger to composing music. Copeland wrote material for the popular ’70s/’80s British band, although Sting wrote most of the band’s tracks. After The Police disbanded in 1986, Copeland expanded his work as a composer to film scores, television, operas and concert music.

Copeland will perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony at concerts Feb. 19 and 21 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

The symphony commissioned Copeland to write his newest orchestral piece as an element in its focus on performers who also compose.

“I don’t see any reason why 60 guys onstage can’t light up the stage and burn down the house the way a rock band does,” Copeland says. “So, the general aesthetic applied to the use of orchestra and the Heinz Hall stage is that I want to make a lot of noise. I want to feel excitement in the room. I’m not trying to be Mahler. This is an entirely different orchestral experience.”

Guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger will be making his debut with the symphony. The program is Copeland’s “The Tyrant’s Crush” performed by the composer with the symphony’s percussion section, and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1.

Although the symphony is billing Copeland’s pieces as “Concerto No. 1 for Trapset, three Percussionists and Orchestra, ‘The Tyrant’s Crush,’” the composer says to scratch the first part. “Just call it ‘The Tyrant’s Crush.’ There’s a story in it, which just makes it easier to compose,” he says. “It is the tale of the rise of a young Bolshevik or something like that who gets into the palace and decides he likes all that, the brocade. And it turns him around, and he ends up as the dictator. You have to wait to the last movement to find out what happens to him and his crew.”

The three movement titles are “Poltroons in Paradise,” “Monster Just Needed Love (but ate the children anyway),” and “Over the Wall (or up against it).”

The first movement of “The Tyrant’s Crush” was written in 2013 on commission from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in England for its percussionists. “I wrote every note for them, which is actually a great exercise,” Copeland says. He’s used to a different genre of music where he can say, give me a 16-bar bongos solo.

“Writing for percussion is more challenging than writing for strings because they are so clattery, the dynamic range is so extreme and the choreography of getting from instrument to instrument must be taken into account,” he says.

Copeland is looking for a different concert experience for audiences, or to tap into how they respond to other music.

“When you hear your Mahler, you want everyone to your left and right to shut up,” he says, “so you can get that stillness and clarity, that intense involvement in complex music. … Rock ‘n’ roll is very much a two-way street. It’s called response. Part of the artistic experience when you receive a rock band is participating by dancing, by shouting, by yelling back, and by applauding. It’s very exciting in an audience to do that.”

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or [email protected].

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