No offense, classical music fans, but as a group, you are probably not as excitable as rock fans.
That’s why 16-year-old Theo Dean, a violin player in the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra, is so psyched to be playing in front of a rock audience at Port City Music Hall in Portland on Friday, with three rock bands.
“People who go to classical concerts don’t get as excited as people who go to rock concerts,” said Dean, of South Portland. “So I look forward to that kind of excitement, it’s fun.”
The Maine Youth Rock Orchestra, formed a little more than a year ago as program of the Maine Academy of Modern Music, seems to meet a couple crucial needs. First, there’s the need for young musicians to rock out once in a while, even if they play violin or cello. Then, there’s the need for strings to help elevate and round out songs by rock bands.
“Locally, there are a lot of bands that use strings, and we have already had recording sessions with some of them,” said Kevin Oates, founder and director of the rock orchestra. “As an educator, I’m excited that this gives kids a chance to record and to work with some great local bands.”
The 21-piece orchestra, for instance, already has had a recording session with one of the bands on Friday’s bill, The Ballroom Thieves, based in Boston. The orchestra, which has players between ages 12 and 18, also has played live gigs with all the bands on the bill Friday.
So the young orchestra members know the songs pretty well. Dean has her favorites.
“I really liked playing on ‘Blow the House Down’ by Darlingside (from Massachusetts), it’s chaotic,” said Dean. “Something by Stravinsky can be chaotic, but this seems freer.”
Oates, a cellist and music teacher, has played strings on the recordings of local musicians for years, including songs by the rapper Spose. So in 2013, Oates approached the staff at the Maine Academy of Modern Music, a school of rock for young musicians, about a program for string players.
The Maine Youth Rock Orchestra is tuition-based, with a cost of $630 a year, but there are scholarships based on need. The youngsters rehearse once a week and have played five shows so far, Oates said. The group includes cello, violin, viola and bass. Oates is planning to expand the program to kids just beginning to learn their instruments.
For most shows, the orchestra rehearses the songs of the bands it will be playing with, then performs those songs with the band. When the orchestra played shows last year, it often did two songs with each band. But for this show, Oates said, the orchestra will play seven songs with each band.
The three bands playing Friday all have an upbeat folk sound, what is sometimes called holler-folk. The lush sound of a string orchestra is both a contrast and a melodic compliment to the music. The Ghost of Paul Revere is based in Maine; the other two bands are based in Massachusetts.
The orchestra already has a summer show scheduled at Port City Music Hall, with Maine singer-songwriter Anna Lombard and the bands Eyenine and Sea Level.
But the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra doesn’t just accompany other groups. In December, the orchestra performed on its own at Portland’s State Theatre as the opening act for pop band MKTO. At that show, the orchestra did string covers of pop songs by contemporary artists like Pharrell Williams, Maroon 5 and Fall Out Boy.
“I want kids to know that with their skills, they can play all these other genres too,” said Oates. “And it’s a great chance for them to play live shows.”