When they started out in the mid-'90s as a project for a college business course, the group of Glaswegian students who called themselves Belle and Sebastian tried to keep things low-key. They named themselves for a French children's TV show, played gigs in churches and libraries, shunned the media and pressed only 1,000 copies -- on vinyl -- of their debut album.
World domination has hardly been their lot since -- their albums sell briskly but hardly vault up the charts. Yet these witty, literate cult favorites are about to score a milestone: Thursday night, they will become the first rockers in a dozen years to get start-to-finish concert accompaniment from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the baton of associate conductor Alexander Mickelthwate. Their show at the Hollywood Bowl, with indie band the Shins opening, will include new orchestrations developed by them and the orchestra.
"We didn't just want to throw the Philharmonic behind some rock group and say, 'Be the backup band,' " says Arvind Manocha, the Bowl's vice president and general manager, who came up with the idea along with his staff. He's been a fan of Belle and Sebastian since he discovered their debut album as a student in England a decade ago.
Manocha is aware that, as the sometimes bloated orchestral performances by "progressive rock" groups in the '70s made clear, the spontaneity and blues idioms of rock don't always meld with prearranged classical charts.
"I'd be lying to say that I have no worries at all," he says. "However, I believe that the challenge is part of what makes each endeavor like this worthwhile -- making art should be a challenge."
Although the Phil has played behind nonclassical acts, including Rufus Wainwright and Bebel Gilberto, for a few songs at a time, and Belle and Sebastian has recorded several tracks with strings, Thursday will mark the group's first full-scale band-and-orchestra experience. The Phil's last such gig was in 1994, behind the Moody Blues.
In some ways, Belle and Sebastian is not as clear a match for the orchestra as that band of art rockers. Nor are the shambling Scots as harmonically "edgy" -- and thus tied to contemporary classical music -- as, say, Radiohead.
But the group's sophistication and its style -- a combination of '60s folk, sly, wistful lyrics, and a flirtation with strings and brass that's evoked the label "chamber pop" -- make the addition of orchestrations look, at the very least, like an intriguing experiment.
Manocha calls them "a group of musicians interested in taking their music in different directions."
"They wanted to show their audience that an orchestra isn't just something your parents listen to but a large and complicated organism that can do a lot of different things," he says. "We knew they'd use the orchestra wisely."
What convinced Belle and Sebastian to take the chance here?
"Just the words 'Hollywood Bowl' and 'Los Angeles Philharmonic,' " trumpeter and bassist Mick Cooke says by phone from Glasgow. "Once those words were spoken, that was enough for us."
The Bowl, Cooke says, has a huge mystique in Britain because of the Beatles and Monty Python albums recorded there. Thursday will be a one-off, and the group's only West Coast stop on a three-city visit to the States.
"A lot of our songs were conceived with orchestral instruments as part of their sound," Cooke says, even if the conceptions went unrealized. Keyboardist Chris Geddes is a Bartok fan, and other band members, including leader Stuart Murdoch, are interested in orchestrated '60s pop. Cooke loves the way orchestration "really sends things home."
Still, they've never been able to do a full concert that way. So even though they've recorded some songs with strings, as on 2003's "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" CD, they can't always create the right instrumental textures live. Take a song from "Waitress" called "Lord Anthony."
"At the Hollywood Bowl," Cooke says, "we'll be able to do that song the way we originally intended it -- as a Sinatra-type thing, just singer and orchestra. On the record, we messed up the original intention. It's good to get a second stab at it."
The Philharmonic's musicians, meanwhile, instead of resenting the booking for trivializing their talents or bracing themselves for music with nothing in common with Beethoven or Brahms, seem to be looking forward to the gig.
Violist Dana Hansen, for instance, says she's "totally excited" and has enjoyed going back to her Belle and Sebastian records to refresh her memory.
"The Bowl's going to be full -- a big audience of people who are really excited," says Hansen, at 27 one of the Phil's youngest members. "And some of that will rub off on the orchestra."