'Hotshot' with a flute

Jethro Tull veteran Ian Anderson discusses the unique challenges of playing with an orchestra.

ian anderson 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ian anderson 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Reminded of his last performance in Israel almost exactly two years ago, Ian Anderson chuckles and says, "Quite right. I don't suppose you've had many foreign visitors lately." The flute-playing mastermind behind platinum-selling rock band Jethro Tull, Anderson has been a regular in Israel even during some of the country's most difficult years, adding an extra show to a tour stop here barely two months after the outbreak of the second intifada. He returned again in the late summer of 2004. He'll have a distinctly different new musical accompaniment on this trip, with the Ra'anana Symphonette and guest violinist Ann Marie Calhoun replacing the wailing guitar of longtime collaborator Martin Barre. Saturday night's performance at the Ra'anana Amphitheater is part of a lengthy tour featuring music from both the Tull and solo periods of Anderson's career, with the chart-topping performer joined by local orchestras at each venue. From his home in England, the chipper 59-year-old talked to The Jerusalem Post about his music, the pleasures and challenges of orchestral accompaniment, and whether there's a politically correct way to call a female violinist a "babe." How did the concept of playing Jethro Tull music with an orchestra come about? The seeds of playing with an orchestra go back to 1968, when I played with a chamber orchestra on the B-side of the first Tull single. And in the Seventies there were quite a few Tull songs accompanied by a chamber orchestra ... About four years ago, a German orchestra asked me to do a show and commissioned several pieces of Tull music to be orchestrated. I worked with the arrangers, and the benefit was that we came away with a suitcase full of sheet music, so we had the core. From these shows, it's become a constant work-in-progress. I have five musicians traveling with me [to Israel], including Calhoun, who plays bluegrass and classical fiddle. I've not met her, but she sounds nice and she's no mean looker. I think they used to call them "babes," which in orchestral terms means they're not fat or frumpy. Has playing with orchestras been a satisfying experience? I quite like doing the concerts - after all, for all these years I've been most noted for playing an instrument which is one of the most popular in the symphony orchestra. Not having been classically trained, it's fun for me to work with orchestra musicians. I have to stretch and learn a few new tricks. Are you finding that new qualities in your songs are brought out by the orchestral accompaniment? "Life is a Long Song" was originally recorded with a chamber orchestra, so there's not a lot to change there. But "My God," "Aqualung" and other songs have orchestral additions. For me, the impetus is to mix and match. There's no point in leaving the audience behind - if the music gets too esoteric, it becomes too difficult on the ear. On the other hand, just replicating a greatest hits show would be dreary. How does your tour work from a logistical standpoint? When do you have time to rehearse with each new orchestra in each city? It takes about six hours of rehearsal to prepare for a two-hour show. In Israel, we'll only have time the day before the concert to rehearse because of the Sabbath, so we'll have to have another two hours before show time. I don't particularly enjoy that - it's like doing two full concerts in the same day - but that's the case here. The orchestra receives the music ahead of time, and hopefully the musicians will have sneaked a peek at it. On some occasions, however, the orchestra doesn't see the music till [its members] sit down in the chair, which can create some additional problems in the sense that the musicians haven't had the chance to look at the music and figure out certain passages that could be a bit tricky. What are some of the problems of combining rock music with orchestral sensibilities? Our music can be a challenge to an orchestra from a rhythmic point of view. Orchestras aren't naturally inclined to play strict tempo music that's repetitive, and often find it difficult to play accents and cross rhythms of jazz and rock. From what I understand, the Ra'anana Symphonette is an interesting orchestra, made up largely of Russian migr s ... which could pose some additional problems. [The orchestra is comprised of 46 musicians, 36 of whom are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. - D.B.] From a musical standpoint, the further east you go in Europe, the more inclined the musicians are to play much further behind the baton. It's not wrong - it's simply the way they see the signal. But this isn't meant to be a criticism of your sterling orchestra. I'm sure they'll do a fine job. Ultimately, [these concerts are] like the world's biggest blind date. We have to learn about each other and our musical skills - not only the musical way to have sex onstage, but the psychology about each particular group of people. Do many of the musicians know Jethro Tull or your music? Usually the flute player turns out to be, if not a fan, at least aware of who I am. I'm probably the only guy in rock to persevere with the flute through four decades, and strangely there are no new contenders for the crown. Why, in all these years, hasn't there been another hotshot flute player? It seems so strange to me, with an instrument as great as the flute.