Memphis Symphony Orchestra's (MSO)Opus One series tackles the music of Big Star on Friday, January 31st, at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale. The show is part of a tsunami of local adulation for the band and a return to concept for the groundbreaking Opus One series.
"Jody [Stephens] — I think wisely — wanted to keep it all acoustic," said Sam Shoup, who arranged the songs for the orchestra. "There's not a drum kit. There are no electric instruments at all. The only instruments other than the symphony orchestra are the guitars that Van Duren and Josh Cosby are playing. That's just the way he wanted to do it. I thought it was wise."
Big Star's main virtue was the songwriting. Following the losses of founders Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, and Andy Hummel, there has been continued demand from fans to hear the music performed live. Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow have stepped in for full-band renderings. But there has been further opportunity to experiment with the songs.
"In the Big Star Third performances, they are using Carl Marsh's charts," Stephens said. But the MSO will be using Sam Shoup's arrangement. It'll be a nice, new twist to them."
Shoup had done some smaller Big Star arrangements for a Recording Academy event.
"This is a bigger version of that. Instead of a string quartet, I have a whole orchestra now," Shoup said.
Stephens is excited to sing in the new acoustic environment: "That's what's going to make it a lot fun for me. I won't have to sing over anything. With a band, singing from behind a drum kit, I feel like I have to sing over things. That's fine with that electric energy there. You just kind of sing out. But with an orchestra or acoustic and upright bass or something, the songs lend themselves more to interpretation."
The show will also mark collaboration with many of the band's old friends.
Duren and Vicki Loveland record and perform together as Loveland Duren. They will perform several songs with Opus One on Friday. They each knew the band from different angles.
"My partner, Vicki, worked in the studio with Alex several times. She has the connection to Alex, and my connection is with Chris and Jody," Duren said. "I worked with Chris and Jody after Big Star. I didn't work with Alex. I knew Alex back in those days. I was a friend of Jody. We were writing together after Third was done. Eventually, late 1975 or '76, Chris and Jody and I put together a band and played some gigs for about a year as the Baker Street Regulars. After Big Star, Jody and I did three sets of demos at Ardent, including one set that Andrew Oldham of the Rolling Stones produced. We tried to get a deal, but we never did."
Duren is excited to continue working with this community of writers and players. Many of whom were essential contributors to the latest Loveland Duren release, Bloody Cupid. He has enjoyed working with Jessie Munson in particular.
"She's just one of these rare birds. She can read and do classical music and then turn around and improvise unlike anybody else," Duren said. "It's usually one or the other, you know. Vicki and I have known Sam for a long time. We go see his outfit Den of Strings. So it's not just a bunch of strangers. We brought Jessie and Jonathan Kirkscey, the cellist, into the studio when we recorded the most recent album. They played on that extensively, and that was cool."
Munson is a Minnesota native who moved to Memphis to work with MSO 11 years ago. She's played with Kirkscey in Glorie and with Harlan T. Bobo. Munson enjoys the Opus One concept and the concerts.
"There may be some places trying to do what we do," Munson said. "But I know we were the first to do something like this. That is pretty cool. They've been well-attended. A few of them weren't. But rather than looking at that as a failure, we were just proud that we did something new. That's kind of the cool thing about Opus One, that it's always a little different. We're always trying something new."
Also on the bill are Cosby of Star & Micey and Susan Marshall, who could not be reached for comment because she was at the Grammy Awards with her husband, Jeff Powell. You will never be as cool as them. If you need to sit down and come to grips with that, we understand. Shoup is particularly excited about Marshall's portion of the program.
"I think it's going to sound really cool. Susan is doing 'Nighttime' and 'September Gurls.' We completely departed from the Big Star versions. She has an arrangement of "Nightime' on her Honey Mouth CD. The 'September Gurls' is totally different: The string session starts out kind of Eleanor Rigbyish. It seemed like a good idea. But everything else is pretty close to the original feel of Big Star."
Shoup has been involved with Opus One since its inception and sees this show as a return to the original intent of the series.
"It's more bare bones," Shoup said. "Opus One has been playing with bands. This time we decided to get back to the original concept: to have the artist just with the orchestra. We did the first couple like that. This time the orchestra is more of an integral part of the show. I like that we're getting back to the original concept of the series."
This groundbreaking MSO program is as much fun for the rockers as it is for the orchestra pros.
"The symphony musicians started it, and they love it," Shoup said. "I think it's the coolest thing ever to walk into a rock club like the Hi-Tone or the New Daisy and see a symphony orchestra set up. I just think it's the coolest thing in the world. I thought the Al Kapone show was a real classic. Everybody really enjoyed that show. It gives us a chance to play with musicians that we normally don't get to play with. You have a whole new sense of respect for what they do. And I think it goes the other way too. The pop and rock artists are always freaked out to work with the symphony. I love seeing their faces the first time they hear an orchestra play their music. It's fantastic. They just light up."
Stephens is excited to hear the arrangements and is moved by the recognition.
"The interest and the care in doing this is pretty awesome," he said. "It's neat how we've been recognized in the community, and I'm really grateful for that. It's amazing."