“Can we get more cello?”
I enter The Seasons Performance Hall during the Seattle Rock Orchestra’s sound check. They’re repeating a section of “Beat It,” and they have to get the levels just right in order to do justice to the broad works of the King of Pop. I fuss over my notes a little. The energy is already high, and I can feel it. I’m not nervous, really - just a little neurotic. I’m convinced there’s a difference.
Scott Teske is standing in front of the orchestra, he and his electric bass both ablaze with enthusiasm. The rest of the ensemble is trickling out. Some are going out for dinner, some are getting ready, and a few have to do last-minute errands before the show. He works with the cellist and the sound guy for a while, fine-tuning microphones and pick-ups until he stands back with what seems like satisfaction.
“I’ll be right back,” he tells me. A few minutes later, he returns with a beer. His demeanor is easygoing and affable, and the neuroses I’d piled up on the drive over begin falling away (as they always should). Scott’s a fun guy to talk with, and eventually the nice-to-meet-you small talk gives way to unabashed music geekery.
As it always should.
Your (Seattle Rock Orchestra’s) Facebook page describes its creation as being born out of a desire to combine classical and rock music in a way that honors the nuances of both. How did that desire come about - what formed that particular passion?
ST: It came from growing up studying classical music, but also being a child of the nineties; being a teen and a preteen in a really cool era of musical history - with the grunge movement in Seattle. I developed a dual identity at a young age growing up with the pop culture music of youth - the rock music - and also falling in love with the study and performance of classical music. It was through participating in the public school system and public school orchestra, and later the youth symphony orchestra. So it was really this amalgamation of interest that developed at a young age.
I had a similar background; I was in public school orchestra and played viola, now I’m really heavily into indie rock. When I noticed that you’d played Arcade Fire’s Funeral in its entirety I lost it a little bit.
That’s one of our favorite shows to play. The music has a lot of personal meaning for us.
“Tunnels” is my favorite.
“Tunnels” is great.
In nine years, you’ve gone from a thirteen piece orchestra to over fifty performers. Do you think fifty is a good number for what you have in mind, or can you see yourself adding even more performers and unique instruments?
I think our expansion these days has been less to do with the expansion of the ensemble and more about our expansion as an arts organization. So, in our capacity to work with musicians, we’ve been thinking about adding additional ensembles so that there’s kind of a family - an umbrella - of Seattle Rock Orchestra ensembles. We have the professional orchestra, and they go out of town to tour, like tonight. We also have a second volunteer orchestra.
The Social Club.
Right, the Social Club. We also have our street band, and our small chamber group - the Seattle Rock Orchestra quintet. That’s kind of where we’ve been focusing our expansions: where we want to serve Seattle musicians of all ages, and also our audiences, having something for every occasion and venue.
That’s wonderful. That was actually another one of my questions. Your website suggests you might have plans to incorporate more youth programs and opportunities for aspiring adult musicians - what are your ideas?
Well, we have dreams. (laughs) In terms of executable planning, we’re still just planning. With regard to youth things, we really want to get it right. Basically, right now we’re looking for a home. We need a building that we can take up residence in so we can have a place to serve the youth and have those youth programs year-round. Sourcing that location has been the biggest thing we’re looking out for right now.
At present, are you basically going from place to place to do what you can?
Well, we do these week-long summer residencies which has a little bit of a smaller footprint, and actually that allows us to get into some pretty historic and impressive places. We were at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, and these middle school and high school kids get to perform on that stage. Not only perform on that stage, but they get to rehearse on that stage for an entire week. Same thing with Kirkland Performance Center, our summer camp site. But finding a permanent residence so we can house those year round programs, that’s a different story.
It would probably make it a lot easier to serve more of the community. You do a lot of work with youths, especially through the Summer Intensive programs. What’s the most rewarding thing about working with young musicians?
The thing that really fuels us - and we incorporate it into our educational philosophy - is that in order to keep the study of these orchestral instruments alive and the kids motivated, we really need to get them to connect with these instruments in a way that they get to understand their potential. Not just to play music, like in their school band, but for the instrument to be a personal vehicle of expression. They’re basically developing their artistic voice and artistic personality, and once they develop a relationship and connection with that instrument, then they can see how it becomes a lot more.
A lot more than dead guys with wigs. You make it to where they can play the music they’re listening to while they grow up, and that’s awesome. And SRO’s repertoire is already quite prolific. What artists or bands haven’t you paid tribute to that you would love to see performed in the near future?
I’d like to take another crack at Queen. We danced around some of the hits last time, and I think it would be really enjoyable for us and our audience to really go full fanservice and just do a Greatest Hits show. I think that would be really incredible. Both in that it’s just musically interesting for us with the musicianship of that band - all four of those gentlemen just being really virtuosic performers - and the fact that all of those songs are just so beloved, culturally. I think that’d be really fun. Let’s see, what else are we really excited about? We’d also like to take a crack at Beyonce’s album Lemonade. I think that’d be a really fantastic experience taking that on as a whole work. And, in a slightly funny and more unpopular way, I’ve really been interested in disco lately. In addition to performing serious tributes, we really like performing these good old-fashioned dance parties. So I’ve been tumbling around in my mind the possibility of doing a Halloween disco party.
I would so attend that party.
It’d be really fun. Embrace the silly and the kitschy, and just have a really fun time indulging in some guilty pleasures.
That sounds amazing. I’m curious about how disco would sound with a full orchestra, but I’m sure if anyone can do it, you can.
Well, thank you. I’ve done my research in that arena, and I’m actually impressed how they utilize and integrate orchestral instruments into that genre. There’s some really interesting - whether or not you like disco, or the beat, or the artist - there’s a lot of orchestral writing in that genre. So as orchestral performers that do rock and pop music, it’d be really interesting for us as a way to incorporate the instruments into the music of that era.
Wonderful! So, regarding tonight’s performance: how incredibly cool did it feel to orchestrate “Thriller”?
Really cool. It’s been a lot of fun because we have our French horn player doing the Vincent Price monologue, so he’s had a different artistic challenge and a different role in the show - to step up in front of a microphone instead of in the back row behind his horn. It’s definitely a very epic and cinematic piece of music. It’s really fun to play, and there’s definitely a reason it closes our program. It’s such a strong composition.
I was hoping it would be the grand finale! It’s my favorite - probably a lot of people’s favorite Michael Jackson song.
I don’t think you could put it anywhere else; it’s just too iconic.
There’s a period of about five minutes where, embarrassingly enough, the app on my phone stops recording. I’m immersed in the conversation so I don’t notice until it’s too late, but Scott is incredibly understanding. He repeats a few things so I can at least take notes; I suppose he’s run into his fair share of technical mishaps as well.
We talk briefly about Scott’s other project - Seattle indie rock band Vendetta Red - which was just signed by Cleopatra Records this year. I wonder if it’s difficult to keep the two musical endeavors apart, or whether he wants to keep one from influencing the other at all. He says that it’s a little early to tell, but that he’d actually met the lead vocalist (Zach Davidson) when he worked with Scott in the Seattle Rock Orchestra.
The format will be different; he knows that much. Scott had just finished tracking his bass parts for their new album (which will be released sometime mid-to-late this year), and he says it was an experience unlike anything he’d encountered with SRO.
Well, I love new experiences, and you can bet I’ll be looking out for that album.
The show itself? It’s a jammin’ party. Most of the audience dances through the entire set, and I really can’t think of a better way to spend a night with orchestral Michael Jackson music than grooving my face off. Which I do. It’s pure, delectable fanservice. They absolutely nail the hits: “Rockin’ Robin,” “Blame It On the Boogie,” “Billie Jean,” “Smooth Criminal,” and - of course - “Thriller,” among others. The conductor also has a single lighted glove.
Yes, just one. I am elated.
Lea Draven is a community wellness advocate who occasionally forgets how to breathe. She has an unhealthy obsession with bad puns and earthquakes.