PopMatters Associate Music Editor
I spent Friday night at a high school orchestra concert. Seriously. And it was one of the most entertaining shows I’ve ever seen.
What began with a 2001 meeting between Beth Hankins—the director of Lakewood City Schools’ orchestra program—and Mark Wood of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become a revolution in the approach that educators take to teaching and presenting high school strings. Infusing the passion of rock into classical pieces, and vice versa, amounts to a “Hey! You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!” and “You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” scenario. Since that first meeting between Hankins and Wood, the Lakewood Project has become a full-fledged phenomenon, with 35 musicians and its own crew.
The evening’s sold-out crowd created an atmosphere that was one part pep rally, one part PTA meeting, and one part time capsule. Parents and educators lined the perimeter of the Music Hall, while students and Lakewood Project alumni crammed the floor in front of the stage. Every now and again between songs there would be a unified cheer singling out a particular member of the Lakewood Project. The boomers lining the outer limits of the hall were at times talking among themselves and at other times nodding their heads in recognition of the classic rock selections. (When the acoustic section was highlighted with a rendition of “Dust in the Wind”, I heard the father next to me turn to his wife and their friends and say, “Oh man… Kansas!”) But regardless of what was going on around the hall, there was no doubt that the stars were the students up there on stage.
Each section of the Lakewood Project has its own moniker: “The Vipers”, “The Acoustics”, “The Rhythm Section”, and “The Crew”. The twelve Acoustics are given multiple opportunities to shine throughout the program, particularly in pieces like “Scarborough Fair” and “Dust in the Wind”, and the Rhythm Section and Crew are also each given an opportunity to take the spotlight.
It’s the Vipers, though, who have achieved celebrity status—it’s clear that what they’ve really learned is a sense of showmanship. This double quartet, named after the electric strings they play, was front and center, handling the vocal-parts within the arrangements. “Geek chic” doesn’t even begin to describe these kids. They strut around the stage, yelling to one another, and expressing themselves in heady teenage rock star postures. Watching them perform, you get the feeling that these are the cool kids rather than the “band geeks” or “orchestra dorks.”
After some traditional selections (“Skylife” and “Trepak”) got things going, the Lakewood Project hit their stride and showcased the uniqueness of the group and the abilities of its individual players during a selection of classic rock standards. The series included the Who’s “Who are You?”, Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and then culminated in a return to a real classic: “Beethoven’s Fifth”, arranged by Max Mueller of the Rhythm Section.
After a brief lull during the percussion feature piece we reached the highlight of two-hour performance: Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” (arranged by Lakewood Project assistant director Patty Perec) and the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”. The kids on the floor sang the chorus to the Bon Jovi warhorse with the gusto of their counterparts 20 years prior, and the musicians on stage rocked out in pure rock star fashion. And “Day Tripper” was appropriated, revered, and deconstructed in this electric orchestra setting.
Another, more surprising one-two punch came with the combo of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. (Did I really just call a Styx song a “winner”? Well, in the context of the Lakewood Project, it worked. Trust me.)
The significance of the show’s date wasn’t lost on any of the players or those in attendance. And the perfectly rebellious version “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Serenade for Strings in G Major)” appropriately celebrated the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birthday. The only thing missing was “Rock Me Amadeus”.