Sting smiles at the orchestra in front of him. "This is the biggest band I've ever had," he says. "There are 50 of us, including me, on stage."
It was a few weeks ago, and I had just asked the singer why he has gone classical for a greatest-hits tour that started Wednesday in Vancouver, B.C. – also the starting point in 2007 for the reunion tour of his ex-band The Police – then crosses North America and swings across Europe through November, with more dates likely.
“I’m like a kid with a new train set,” Sting said, taking a break from a morning rehearsal in London’s Abbey Road Studios. “It is so much fun having all these cello players, violinists and oboe players.” The British-born rock star has just taken the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra through a rehearsal of “An Englishman in New York.”
“I don’t drink coffee, I take tea, my dear,” he sings before sipping from a mug.
The strings transform the jazzy tribute to writer Quentin Crisp into something that will go down like a storm when Sting plays the Metropolitan Opera House on July 13 and 14.
The Police signed off in New York in 2008 after a final $340 million tour – the group has sold more than 50 million albums.
The promoter, Live Nation Entertainment, expects the new shows to add to Sting’s fortune, estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List in April at $258 million.
“It’s exciting for me,” says Sting, “because a lot of songs I would not do with a rock band I could do with this kind of setup. They are being brought to life in a different kind of way, evolving as the musicians play them. They seem to have a new life and mood and so I am just going with that.” He looks relaxed and tanned in a white shirt and black sweater.
Sting has been flirting with classical music since his 2006 album of John Dowland Baroque music. Last year, he and his wife, Trudie Styler, appeared in “Twin Spirits,” a celebration of Robert Schumann, while the CD “If on a Winter’s Night ...” continued the search. Now recently shorn of the heavy beard he sported on that album cover, he is looking a remarkably youthful 58 and will celebrate his 59th after a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall this October.
He promises a CD of the new material on July 13 under the expected title “Symphonicities.”
The orchestrations are carefully planned. Sting recalls how he had tried using the acclaimed drummer Vinnie Colaiuta – he had to be in a Perspex box because every time he hit the snare it obliterated any subtlety in the arrangement – before settling on percussionist David Cossin, who joins Sting’s long- time guitarist Dominic Miller and bassist Ira Coleman.
“There are some surprises,” says Sting. “One of my arrangers, Rob Mathes, sitting here, said to me ‘I want to arrange a song called “Next to You,” ’ which was the first track on the first Police album. It’s a sort of punky four-chords, rock-and-roll thrash. I said, ‘You are out of your mind, how could we possibly do that?’ and he said, ‘I have an instinct.’ And it’s one of the best songs of the set – you actually have these fiddlers playing rock and roll. We should do it for you. Wanna hear it?”
We do. “Nice and loud,” Sting implores the players. The strings bash away. This isn’t the sound of an orchestra “freaking out” that the Beatles wanted on “A Day in the Life,” recorded in the same studio, though it comes close.