Published in the Newcastle Herald 10/11/19
Original Article: sydneyartsguide.com.au
Article by Scott Bevan
It could easily sound like the musical equivalent of being caught between a rock and a hard place. A rock band and a symphony orchestra on the same stage.
But George Ellis is one of those brave souls who dances along the tightrope stretched between rock and classical music. Actually, he conducts his way along it, turning two worlds into a harmonious one.
“When rock and pop music is combined with the sounds of the symphony orchestra, to me that’s a musical match made in heaven,” says the ebullient 55-year-old.
George Ellis has composed, arranged and conducted music for everything from children’s shows to the Sydney Olympics. And he has worked with a pantheon of Australian rock artists, bringing orchestration to their music, including Steve Kilbey, Megan Washington and Josh Pyke.
As Steve Kilbey, a master songwriter and the frontman of The Church, says, “George is really aware of what an orchestra can do for a band, and vice versa.”
With his lush hair, easy smile and youthful face, Ellis looks like a rock star. But he is also a conservatorium-trained musician and conductor, who can navigate his way through the forest of notes on even the most complex of orchestral scores.
For George Ellis, rock came first.
“I grew up on rock and pop music,” explains the Sydney-born Ellis. “My earliest memory – I think I was five years old – is of my dad giving me a cassette of Sergeant Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, which I absolutely fell in love with.”
As a kid, Ellis learnt guitar and piano, then in high school he played bass in a band he formed with his mates. The power pop band was called The Affections. They released a single, This Is Love, for Deluxe Records, which had signed another young Sydney outfit called INXS: “Out of the two bands, I think INXS did a little bit better.”
Ellis had begun a science degree but the attraction of being in a touring rock band overshadowed sitting in a university lecture theatre. But then The Affections broke up. His parents encouraged him to return to university; George wanted to remain with music. As a compromise, he enrolled at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
He was introduced to classical music and was utterly seduced by the sound of a symphony orchestra: “Here I was amazed at the sound of this thing, this conglomeration of instruments. It wasn’t so much the music I was interested in – I mean, I loved Mozart and Bach – but it was the sound and the colours of the symphony orchestra. The flute married with the cello with the bassoon with the violin. That just absolutely fascinated me, and I wanted to be in that world.”
Believing he wouldn’t be able to take his place in an orchestra playing an instrument, Ellis opted to be the person out the front. He took a course in conducting.
“I thought, ‘At least I’ll be around an orchestra. I’ll be enveloped in that sound’.”
Indeed, that sound has enveloped George Ellis’ life. He did further studies in conducting and composition in the United States, before returning with the baton in his hand, a head full of ideas and a fire in the belly.
Ellis keeps time for orchestras, and he makes time for all kinds of projects. He conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Millennium Choir at the Sydney Olympics’ opening ceremony. He has arranged music for, and had a role in, director Bruce Beresford’s films Mao’s Last Dancer and Ladies in Black. He has composed music for his own projects, including a children’s show that he created with actor Justine Clarke, called Mimi’s Symphony.
George Ellis has also tapped into his rock past to forge a musical future. He is renowned for bringing together rock and classical music.
Yet Ellis is aware members of those two worlds can eye each other off suspiciously. At times, he is a diplomat as well as a conductor. Ellis recalls when he was hired by The Church to conduct and arrange the orchestrations for the band’s “A Psychedelic Symphony” at the Sydney Opera House in 2011, guitarist Marty Willson-Piper said to him, “So George, how are you going to make this not sound shit?”.
The sound was acclaimed. Ellis has gone on to work extensively with The Church and Kilbey, including on his recent solo album, Sydney Rococo. The string arrangements on the album are, like the songs, beautifully intoxicating and ethereal.
“I think we work really well together,” says Kilbey. “He’s got the knowledge, I’ve got the attitude.”
Kilbey notes that his collaborator and friend has not just vast knowledge but the unabashed enthusiasm of the kid who fell in love with music via rock and roll.
“Despite all his knowledge and everything since then, he is still the inner boy.”
Ellis will be bringing together rock and classical, spiced with a heavy dose of nostalgia, at the Civic Theatre on November 16, with the Hooked on Classics concerts.
The Hooked on Classics series spawned a string of hits in the 1980s, as slivers of famous classical pieces were dressed up and put to a rock beat. What used to be played on scratchy vinyl is now brought to life by Ellis with a 30-piece orchestra, and the shows have been attracting enthusiastic audiences.
“They know it’s classical music performed with a bit of fun,” Ellis says. “It’s performed seriously and beautifully but it kind of has a little laugh with itself, saying, ‘This is Mozart, but this is Mozart presented in a new way’.”
So what does Ellis think Mozart would make of his music being put to a beat?
“What I’ve read about Mozart, he was a bit of a party goer,” the conductor replies. “If that’s true, I suspect he’d be the first to rock out to Hooked on Mozart. And he’d probably come up to the podium and say, ‘Get off, Ellis, I’m conducting this one’!”