Hawaii Symphony: “Guilty Pleasure” Lacked Pleasure
On New Year’s Eve, the Hawaii Symphony presented “The Music of ABBA,” so we are told. Someone must have tipped off the community, because there was a plethora of unsold seats to the concert. What we experienced appeared to be a grandmother and her friends, an obnoxious drummer, and a keyboardist who, bless his heart, tried very hard to entertain. I wish I had gone instead to Bill Maher’s 9th Annual New Year’s Comedy Extravaganza at the Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall. The jokes would have been at least real.
The concert was advertised as featuring four singers: Katalin Kiss, Andrea Koziol, Stephanie Martin, and Lis Soderberg. One of them didn’t show up because she had other things to do. Stephanie Martin was unprepared and made several mistakes during her featured songs. Lis Soderberg impressed us with her ability to speak Swedish, or lack thereof. Swedish is a tonal language, but Lis apparently never learned that.
Katalin Kiss took a cheap shot at Agnetha Fältskog – criticizing Agnetha’s summary of “Summer Night City” not being very much in the style of ABBA. Pardon me, but I believe Agnetha Fältskog, who actually is part of ABBA, knows quite a bit about the group – expertise that Miss Kiss could only hope for in her dreams. Kiss claimed Fältskog was wrong in her judgment of the song, which incidentally was the harbinger of decline for ABBA. “Summer Night City” ended ABBA’s legacy of number one songs in Sweden. It was released as a standalone single on September 6, 1978, and fans rushed to purchase it, because it was an ABBA production. Unfortunately, it left such a bitter taste for fans, ABBA couldn’t sell any further number one hits in Sweden. This recording sat in storage for 3 years, because it was too bad to publish, but due to economics, something desperately had to be released. Under duress, they took a chance and released it. U Discover Music says the song was a failure by the group’s super-league standards. Benny Andersson later lamented, “We shouldn’t have released that one.”
I have no clue how Jeans ‘n Classics (the company peddling the ABBA concert experience) convinced the Hawaii Symphony to let them “use” the orchestra as their backup band. The 4 vocalists (actually 3, due to the no-show) are 4 females. ABBA consists of 2 men and 2 women. The parts normally sung by Göran Bror Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus were substituted by the apparent granny and her 2 girlfriends. Why didn’t they just go to a homeless camp at Kakaʻako and pick up a couple of baritones?
The symphony publicized, “Perhaps a night of ABBA music is the ultimate ‘guilty pleasure’ for us all.” Pleasure – not. Guilty – probably yes.
ABBA performed disco music, not rock. Rock and disco percussion patterns are different: disco features greater subdivision of the beat, which is 4-to-the-floor. The rhythm is laid down by prominent syncopated basslines (with heavy use of broken octaves, that is, octaves with the notes sounded one after the other) played on the bass guitar. Or, in the case of ABBA, synthesized as in “Gimme Gimme Gimme.” The keyboardist made a sincere effort to produce this. However, what we don’t find in disco, or any symphony, is an overbearing cacophony of acoustic drums drowning out all of the other instruments.
One patron told me she wished she could take Jeff Christmas to the back of the building and toss him into the dumpster where he belonged – but she couldn’t make her true feelings known, because her husband organized the “date” to celebrate their wedding anniversary and didn’t want him to know she thought the night was an unmitigated disaster.
“Jeff Christmas came across as a narcissist who thought he was a drummer playing in a heavy metal band,” said one patron. I was unable to hear 95% of the orchestra due to the intrusion by the amplified drum kit. Those subtle moments when a symphony member played maracas was totally lost. Jeans ‘n Classics has a soundtrack sample of “Dancing Queen” on their website – it is not what they presented at this concert. You can actually hear the symphony on their promotional soundtrack. I felt hoodwinked – “Under Attack” as the ABBA song goes. Jeff Christmas is also a conductor for Jeans ‘n Classics, so he knows what he was doing – there cannot be any doubt about it.
This was not a tribute band, it was a cover band – a band that was disrespectful to the symphony, as many people felt. This was about vanity and delusion. Even to the uneducated, a symphony concert is poor if one instrument is drowning out the other instruments, and it sounds unbalanced. One patron remarked, “Drums can be very overpowering; for a band like ABBA they should definitely be in the background, not featured. Phil Collins, sure, he had several drum sets when we saw him, it is his ‘thing,’ but ABBA, not so much.”
One patron characterized it as old folks reenacting a middle school band nightmare. As a musician myself, I would posit that percussion NEVER belongs in front of anything unless it’s a percussion concert!
The vocalists took another cheap shot at ABBA, saying the videos comprised only close-ups of Agnetha’s and Frida’s faces, either forward facing, or toward each other. Clearly these vocalists are unaware of ABBA’s Dancing Queen, a number one hit in the United States. The Dancing Queen video was filmed in one take, on June 18, 1976, and televised on Swedish TV during an all-star gala staged by Kjerstin Dellert at the Royal Swedish Opera in honor of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and his bride-to-be, Silvia Sommerlath, who were married the next day. The video shows ABBA in period costumes from the 1700s, showing full body movements, Benny on a concert grand, and Bjorn on guitar. The music of ABBA is highly sophisticated from a technological point of view. Too many people are delusional and believe they can replicate it.
“Oh, joy,” said one patron. “Maybe they’ll grace the stage again doing their granny version of Captain and Tennille.” Let’s hope the Hawaii Symphony cottons on, as love does not always keep us together.
The next Hawaii Symphony is “Ode to Joy,” conducted by JoAnn Falletta. The concert celebrates Beethoven’s 250th anniversary.