By David DeRocco
The musical roots of The Tragically Hip have always been deeply planted in Canadian soil, a badge of honour for patriotic fans who like the fact the Hip have always been Canada’s best kept secret. However, the seeds of the idea for an upcoming salute to Kingston, Ontario’s most popular musical export were actually first planted in the Hip-loving city of Buffalo, New York.
In 2017, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra premiered Symphonically Hip, an exciting new collection of the band’s songs performed by Buffalo-based Hip tribute, The Strictly Hip, and featuring a full symphony orchestra. The performance was not without its Canadian content however; the arrangements were developed with the help of Niagara Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Music Director Bradley Thachuk. Now, The Strictly Hip and NSO are teaming up to bring Symphonically Hip north of the border for a show Thachuk says will deliver a unique celebration of the Hip’s music.
“People know that when there’s a rock band on stage with an orchestra, when done correctly, it can be a real special occasion,” said Thachuk, a highly sought-after symphonic arranger who has earned his rock cred working with artists as diverse as Steve Hackett of Genesis, Dave Mason, Chantal Kreviazuk and The Beach Boys. “That’s why you see so many bands through history mount a rock show with an orchestra. Deep Purple did it. Styx have done it, Metallica and Foreigner have done it. It’s always special.”
To ensure the production was “done correctly,” Thachuk worked closely with the members of The Strictly Hip on perfecting the technical elements necessary to deliver an exceptional auditory experience.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you have a band on stage with all those amplifiers,” he said. “It’s really loud and hard to maintain a proper balance between the orchestra and band. The one criticism that often happens with orchestra and rock band concerts is that the orchestra is just eye candy. You can’t actually hear it. We worked really carefully with The Strictly Hip to ensure that wasn’t the case. The orchestra has a place and can be fully heard during this show.”
Thachuk says the key to writing arrangements for an orchestral accompaniment to a rock band performance is working with the existing spaces found in the songs. Surprisingly, it was the Hip’s bigger hits that provided the toughest challenge for the conductor and his writing partner to orchestrate.
“When you look at “Grace Too” or “Depression Suite,” those are easy,” explained Thachuk, who’s now in his ninth season with the NSO. “Most of the Hip’s songs leave a lot of space for an orchestra to augment them. Where it becomes hard is in the more up tempo songs, the ones that are really in people’s minds. You don’t want to get in the way, but the orchestra needs a role. The more up tempo the song, the harder it becomes to slot in.”
As for who is more apt to enjoy the performance of Symphonically Hip – rock fans or orchestra fans – Thachuk has no illusions about who the primary target is for the show.
“I would hope it’s both. But we realize when we present the music of The Tragically Hip that most of the people are going to be there to hear the music of the band they love. We might have some curious symphony goers. In general, we’re trying to make sure that the fans of the band walk out having been blown away by the experience.”