This week, two local orchestras will try to expand their horizons and their audiences with ventures into pop (or, in orchestral parlance, “pops”) music. On Thursday night, the Akron Symphony Orchestra will perform the music of ABBA with the help of Arrival from Sweden (so at least they’ll get the accents right).
That show is a pretty easy sell as the music of ABBA has long been part of American pop culture and a few generations of pop music fans have either grown up listening to or been introduced to the rock hall of famer’s candy sweet and catchy tunes such as Dancing Queen through the massive hit jukebox musical/film Mamma Mia.
But the Canton Symphony Orchestra is trying something quite different in the pops realm on Friday night at the Canton Palace Theatre. The CSO will present an evening featuring the original music of the Speedbumps, a Kent acoustic indie rock band with two albums — its debut Apple Tree and its most recent album The Moon Is Down — under its belt.
It’s a pretty cool idea and a pretty big leap of faith for the symphony, which will bring in a 40-piece orchestra to augment the band’s mostly low-key songs that are already laced with Sam Kristoff’s cello and often-bowed bass from upright/electric bassist Kevin Martinez. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Erik Urycki and drummer Pat Hawkins round out the band.
The concert has been a year in the making and was jump-started during a regular Speedbumps gig at a local bar attended by CSO Executive Director Michelle Mullaly and her husband.
“He turned to me and said, ‘You know, these guys would be awesome with the symphony’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ and it took a little while, but here we are,” Mullaly said.
For the orchestra, the show is a leap of faith. With the traditional classical audience graying and orchestras all over the country trying to traverse difficult economic times, the CSO hopes the show will bring in curious classical music supporters as well as Speedbumps fans and pop music lovers who might enjoy seeing a favorite local band get the epic orchestral treatment.
The concert has also presented new technical challenges for the orchestra in part because it’s not at its regular venue and folks had to figure out how to properly mike the band, get the best sound in an unfamiliar venue and promote the show to a nonorchestral audience.
For the Speedbumps, who have been seriously gigging and living off those gigs for about six years, the show offer was a huge surprise.
“We didn’t even pursue it when Michelle emailed me a year ago and said we want to collaborate with you guys,” Urycki said the day before the first and only full band/orchestra rehearsal (orchestras don’t rehearse for free, folks).
“I’m like ‘What? You want us to pass out your fliers?’ ”
He continued: “Our style of music does kind of fit orchestration; it’s not a far reach. Having a cellist and bass player that does some bowing, we already have that kind of feel in the music, so I think it was a good step out into the unknown for them to use us.”
The band will play 11 songs from its two albums with the orchestra, and though the band has played scores of shows including a showcase in Perth, Australia, Urycki admits to having some nerves about the unfamiliar and exciting setting.
“I can’t wait until rehearsal. I am writing out lyrics that haven’t changed in years because I’m afraid I’m going to start listening to the orchestra and forget where I’m at,” he said.
Assistant conductor Rachel Waddell will lead the orchestra using arrangements written by Martinez who serendipitously had recently joined the band when the gig was offered. Martinez, who has a master’s degree in jazz composition from DePaul University, occasionally jams at the Northside Bar & Grill’s weekly jazz workshop/jam in Akron and has been arranging a song a month using Finale software for the past year.
Ideally, the concert will be a boon for the band and the CSO. The orchestra is even getting in the spirit of the show by having members wear jeans and their favorite band T-shirts while the Speedbumps will don the all-black attire that the CSO usually wears for performances.
Mullaly said the concert will have a “very different vibe for us,” with indie rock fans and a full bar, two things that are not usually part of the concerts at Umstattd Performing Arts Hall.
Pops concerts have become important for the continued survival of orchestras across the country.
“Classical music is seen as something old people listen to and it’s not cool,” Mullaly said.
“Orchestras are trying different approaches to bring in new audiences and listeners and pops concerts are a way to bridge that gap, to draw in people who might not come in to hear Beethoven or Brahms but might come to hear the Speedbumps,” she continued. “It’s an easier way to meet the audience at their level rather than try and bring the audience up where we are.”
Mullaly said the orchestra has already received some requests and ideas from other local bands interested in performing with them and the CSO is very open to the idea.
Meanwhile, the Speedbumps, who range in age from their mid-20s to early 30s, have recently started recording a third album, which the band hopes to complete for a spring 2013 release.
Urycki says the band, which draws upwards of 400 fans to its shows and makes a living off of its gigs, is reaching a tipping point and the album will be “very telling” for the band’s future.
“I love playing music, I love writing songs, but I don’t know if I can be this poor for the rest of my life. It seriously sucks. So we’re going to have to take a really good look in the mirror after the next album,” Urycki said, adding that his band mates are ready to do some serious touring.
But for now, the Speedbumps and the Canton Symphony Orchestra are offering local classical and indie pop fans an unusual and interesting concept that could open the doors for more band/orchestra collaborations and everyone involved is excited.
“I haven’t even done the show yet, and I’m already, like, this is awesome!” Urycki said.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram. … Go figure.