Pop Concerto (2014) · 27.5 min (in four movements)

Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra; arrangement of four popular songs (by Seal, Alanis Morrisette, U2, and Michael Jackson) with four cadenzas composed by Eliot Fisk

flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 percussionists, harp, piano (with some preparation), guitar solo, strings

Written for Eliot Fisk

Program Note

As a young person, I studied violin and piano, and was solely focused on classical music; playing in a rock band was not something I ever considered. It wasn’t until one of my UC Berkeley teachers, Richard Felciano, shared one of his many maxims — “culture is what we make together” — that I began to think seriously about popular music. In particular, I started to listen to the pop music of my youth more critically. Over time, I found myself consistently returning to the complete works of U2 and Michael Jackson, as well as Seal’s self-titled album and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. Arranging these works are as much exercises as they are homages, an opportunity for me to both learn from and honor this music. When I listen to pop music, I don’t really hear the words, instead I become fascinated with textures, the character of the voices, vocal doublings, background vocals, mixing, special effects—the whole production of the music. I first did a rigorous transcription of each recording—there were so many colors and layers and textures and effects that stimulated my ideas for instrumental combinations. I especially listened closely to the rhythms and the tonal inflections of the voice. The guitar solos are the vocal lines re-imagined for guitar.

“Bring It On” is the first track on the album Seal. From the beginning sound engineer Joel Gordon and I knew that it would be difficult to maintain the nuance of Eliot Fisk’s classical guitar within the final mix—but thinning the orchestral texture in order to accommodate the guitar didn’t seem to be the right approach. “Bring It On” is denser and more layered than the other works I transcribed, and music like Seal’s gives me ideas for acoustic orchestrations that I would never have thought of before.

It was the whistling guitar effects found in the haunting background textures of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” that drew me to this work. Special thanks to BMOP percussionist Robert Schulz for suggesting the waterphone, an inharmonic acoustic percussion instrument, to illustrate these ethereal sounds. In other places I used glissandi string harmonics and behind-the-bridge arpeggiations to suggest Dave Navarro’s psychedelically distorted guitar musings. I was very diligent in transcribing Flea’s electric bass line; it’s the timbral inflections between the notes, the slides and slaps and bends and squeaks, that give this music life. Top honors go to Eliot Fisk’s hallucinatory improvisations recalling Morissette’s emotive “Ohhs” and “Aahs” just before the bridge—no doubt Eliot and I, like millions of listeners, resonated with the vengeful wrath of music prompted by a bitter relationship.

I find the last (and mostly ignored) twenty seconds of U2’s “Beautiful Day” to be fascinating. It resembles electroacoustic art music and inspired me to come up with a combination of microtonal bends in the celli, harp harmonics, and piano strings dampened from the inside. Bono’s declamation sounds so natural, one would never guess at the shifting metric organization in his singing. He rarely ever starts or stops a phrase on a downbeat. Pair this with shifting eighth note patterns found in the electric bass and drums, and it’s extremely difficult to find the beat. At one point, Eliot Fisk (the virtuoso guitarist for whom Luciano Berio composed his insanely difficult Sequenza XI) tossed his music aside — “I can’t read it! I can’t do it!” It gave us all a greater sense of the complexity of some popular music that we, as trained classical musicians, almost always take for granted as being simple and easy. Transcribing and arranging “Beautiful Day” was as good as any master class I’ve ever taken.

Transcribing Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” made me feel like I was in his mind for a little while, trying to see and hear the music from his perspective. Of course, one of the most exciting challenges was to figure out how to illustrate his many vocalizations, “Hee hee!”, “Aaow!” and so on. I used sliding penny whistles, string harmonics, guitar harmonics, glissandi, and piccolo shrieks, though there is one moment where the entire orchestra chimes in with “Chika, chika, chika!” It took several takes, because the orchestra erupted in laughter. Michael Jackson was a musical genius.

Although Eliot and I had worked together for over 10 years on the Boston GuitarFest, it wasn’t until 2014 that we found the time to begin this project—I had wanted to work with him for so long! Eliot was interested in a cross-over work that might hold interest for multiple audiences, but would also show off his unbelievable virtuosity. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it would be best for Eliot to write his own cadenzas — just like in the old days, when soloists made them up on the spot. Although Eliot’s cadenzas definitely have the feel of improvisation, I can attest that he wrote down every note. Eliot Fisk, I am indebted to you!

View Score

Recorded on June 29, 2014 by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose, Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA; released on BMOP/sound 1051, January 24, 2017.


“The Pop Concerto consists of arrangements of four classic\ pop songs: ‘Bring It On,’ ‘You Oughta Know,’ ‘Beautiful Day,’ and ‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’ The guitar carries the vocal line in each. It was written for Eliot Fisk, who wrote his own cadenzas. This is a terrific concerto in every way and, of course, perfectly performed. All of this music is expertly played by the splendid orchestra under Gil Rose’s direction. Engineers have captured all of this in realistic, ultra-sound. This is a major issue of American music.” 

– Robert E. Benson, Classical CD Review, (April 2017)

“the orchestration is wildly inventive… De Ritis is a gifted composer who deserves a wider audience.”

– Ken Keaton, American Record Guide, (November/December 2017)

“Fisk renders its challenging solo part superbly … U2’s ‘Beautiful day’ comes off best, its essential lyricism caught by the sensitive transcription.”

– Guy Rickards, Gramophone, (June 2017)

“There is ever a rhythmic vitality to this music, a factor that gives it all a very contemporary edge… The key to the success aesthetically of this concerto is the reworking of the song material and the inventive quality of the solo guitar part. The final results are far more than a simple arranging of song material to fit an orchestral-guitar solo idiom. There is on display a thorough conceptual rigor and flow that brings it above an arrangement and into new compositional territory.”

– Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review (September 1, 2017)


Morris, Tony (Producer). (2017, March 13). Classical Guitar Alive. Austin, TX: Public Radio Exchange (PRX). 

Classical Guitar Alive! celebrates 20 years of national broadcasts, and is broadcast each week on 250+ radio stations. And is a winner at the PRX.org’s 13th Annual Zeitfunk Awards for: #1 Most Licensed Producer, Tony Morris; #2 for Most Licensed Series, Classical Guitar Alive!