Burton to bring voices of children, Queen to Tanglewood

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LENOX — The music of the iconic British rock group Queen, and the dramatic up-and-down life story of its lead singer, Freddie Mercury, made the film "Bohemian Rhapsody" one of last year's biggest box-office blockbusters.

Mercury's charisma was captured memorably by Rami Malek, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor. Vocals were contributed by Marc Martel, the Canadian rock musician from Montreal.

Martel will bring "Symphonic Queen," an adaptation of his tribute show "The Ultimate Queen Celebration," to Tanglewood at 8 p.m. Thursday, June 27. Backing him will be the Boston Pops, conducted by the BSO's Choral Director and Tanglewood Festival Chorus conductor James Burton.

Burton led a United Kingdom revival of Leonard Bernstein's musical "Wonderful Town" in 2012, and previously collaborated with Arlo Guthrie, the Berkshires' own folk troubadour.

This summer, Burton also will lead the recently formed Boston Symphony Children's Choir and the BSO during Tanglewood on Parade (July 23) in the first orchestral performance of highlights from his own 30-minute work, "The Lost Words," based on the recently published children's book.

The Eagle interviewed Burton via email earlier this month. The following has been lightly edited for length:

Q: Although you've had several notable excursions outside the classical repertoire, "Symphonic Queen" represents a new venture. Can you describe how Queen's music resonates with you?

A: Simply put, for me music is music, and I've always enjoyed as much of it in as many styles as I had capacity to listen to, learn and perform. The music of Queen was the soundtrack for many people's lives in the '70s and '80s, and I was no exception. I remember being devastated when Mercury died, particularly because I had loved his records so much, but especially because I had watched his performance at Live Aid in 1985, and it was, for me, the outstanding moment of that memorable day but also that era in music. I was a chorister in a very formal musical establishment at that time, and his vocal power, range and dexterity, and his unstoppable stage presence made a big impression on me. He also wrote some of the best songs of all time, songs which are known all over the world. I'm therefore very excited to be conducting this show, and all of us are thrilled that Marc Martel is coming to Tanglewood to share his brilliant talents with us.

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Q: Both versions of your composition, "The Lost Words: Spell Songs," for children's choir with piano or orchestra will debut at Tanglewood next month. What inspired you about the book?

A: I was approached by colleagues at the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England, to compose a piece for their children's choir and the orchestra. My colleagues at the BSO heard about the project and the book on which it is based, and have been wonderfully supportive of this venture, so much so that the BSO is a co-commissioner and we are currently preparing for the premiere of the version with piano [at the Tanglewood Theatre on July 21 at 12:30 p.m., part of the Summer Sundays series], and a highlights version with orchestra for the Tanglewood on Parade concert July 23 at 8 p.m.

"The Lost Words" is a book that contains poems and illustrations of nature words, which were omitted from the Junior Oxford Dictionary: the illustrator Jackie Morris and writer Robert Macfarlane have so imaginatively placed them back in the world by creating a magical interweaving of word and picture. It seems that "The Lost Words" is a book for children of all ages.

I was unwinding at home after conducting a Holiday Pops concert in Boston, and I started to explore the idea of the book as a libretto, and the music started coming straight away. I stayed up late that night and starting scribbling ideas down, and in the morning, I realized that I was on to something positive and there was no turning back. A few weeks later, I had an initial chat with Robert and he told me the book was already beginning to stir its readers (both children and adult) in unexpected and lovely ways. Since then, the book itself has become a widespread literary phenomenon, which has engaged children with nature and the beauty of words themselves. My musical setting is just one of a set of responses to the book, all of which share a profound belief that if we lose words for things, those things begin to matter less and will eventually disappear.

I want the piece to be performable by singing groups who might not always have easy access to a full symphony orchestra. Therefore, I created the version with piano accompaniment. Each song is a standalone piece, and conductors can choose one or two which fit their programming needs and their choir's level, or they can tackle the whole thing.

Q: Describe the experience of rehearsing "The Lost Words" with the Boston Symphony Children's Choir.

A: The singers have known about the piece for a few months, and their reaction was so sweet when I told them I was the composer! I've introduced them to the piece gradually by talking about it, showing them the book and discussing the ideas behind it. I founded the BSO's Children's Choir just over a year ago, partly because the orchestra so often needs a children's choir in its performances but also in order to continue and expand part of the BSO's mission to reach new audiences and engage people with music in new ways. Creating this entirely new musical work for the choir has been the icing on the cake.

Q: Can you elaborate on the variety of musical styles you've utilized, and define "word spells," a term likely to be unfamiliar to American audiences.

A: In writing the music for "The Lost Words," I have created a song for each of the poems, or as Jackie and Robert like to say "spells." Their idea was that the poems should be spoken out loud and therefore act as incantations, and my part has been to further that desire by adding notes so that the words can fly even further. One of the joys of the book is its diversity, and I've tried to match that by creating a sound world for each of the poems, which matches the words. I wanted the music to be accessible to the children on first hearing, and indeed lots of the writing is fairly lyrical and tuneful, but I've not held back from using the full vocal and dynamic range of the children's voices, from soft whispering to a brief moment of shouting, and everything in between.


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