Twenty-six years after ABBA — the Swedish super group that performed its final show on Dec. 11, 1982, on the British television program The Late, Late Breakfast Show — remains huge in pop culture. They receive massive play on classic rock and contemporary radio stations, their album sales top several million annually, and the Broadway musical Mamma Mia! (featuring 22 ABBA songs) has packed Winter Garden Theatre since 2001. A film version of Mamma Mia! — released last summer and starring Meryl Streep — grossed more than $500 million worldwide. Some theaters even screened a sing-along version.
On Feb. 11, Desert Symphony celebrates its 20th anniversary at McCallum Theatre with The Music of ABBA. “Everything you know from the musical and movie, we’ll be doing,” Maestro Edwin “Ben” Benachowski says.
The tribute group Arrival — named after ABBA’s 1977 album — joins the symphony, wearing replicas of original ABBA clothing. (Swedish radio listeners were unable to distinguish Arrival’s version of the smash hit “Dancing Queen” from ABBA’s original.)
Like all Desert Symphony performances, the ABBA show is essentially a double-bill. The symphony serves as the opening act. Then, after a short intermission, the orchestra backs up the featured performer. “We structure our program to complement the artist,” Benachowski says. For instance, ABBA was influenced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and folk rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s, so the symphony’s performance will include selections from Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and Evita and music by Jim Croce.
This format allows Desert Symphony to perform classical and popular music in the same evening. “We try to reach everybody,” Benachowski says. “Because of that, we’re one of the rare symphonies that fills the house. We’ve filled our house now for three years in a row.”