Benatar Brings the Classical Rock

Youth Orchestra players hit the high notes with the '80s legend.

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When worlds collide: Pat Benatar and the - Contemporary Youth Orchestra.
When worlds collide: Pat Benatar and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra.
The stuffiness normally associated with an evening at the orchestra was quickly deflated when a guy with a long brown ponytail stood up and threw the devil horns.

"Why is he doing that?" a guy in the back gasped.

Because the show was kickass, that's why.

Last Tuesday, '80s rock chick Pat Benatar and her husband, guitarist Neil Giraldo, joined Cleveland's Contemporary Youth Orchestra at Cleveland State for symphonic renditions of hits like "Heartbreaker" and "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

It was a rare mingling of classic rock and classical music, two sounds that go together like Schlitz and quiche. For an evening, the posh Waetjen Auditorium was more High Times than highbrow. And at long last, the orchestra was introduced to sleeveless T-shirts and neck tattoos -- both sported by guys whose knowledge of classical music stops at Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction."

But really, who better to unite the masses than Pat friggin' Benatar? When it comes to ballsy, Reagan-era rock babes, only Chrissie Hynde outmuscles her. Back in the day, Benatar proudly rocked a femullet, featured bare-assed dudes in her videos, and set the bar for female rockers so high that Courtney Love couldn't reach it if she was standing on Pink's shoulders.

Two decades later, Benatar came across tougher than ever. Clad in a leopard-print top and a black blazer, she looked like a punk-rock PTA mom. She clutched her chest, pumped her fists, and played air guitar as 13 of her tunes were enlivened by a hundred-piece orchestra made up of 'tweens in braces.

Led by conductor Liza Grossman, who wore a flowing black gown and pointy black boots, the kids added torque and texture to Benatar's back catalogue. Her throaty vocals were abetted by the dense rhythmic tsunami coming from a five-piece percussion section and a pair of drummers. They turned "Heartbreaker" into a forceful martial anthem and added much-needed depth to boilerplate rockers like "Go."

Even the kids hammed it up, like a roomful of pubescent Vince Neils. They bounced in their seats as if they were sitting on hot plates, stomping their feet to the rhythm, shouting along to the songs. A trumpeter repeatedly threw his instrument in the air, deftly catching it mid-phrase. A kid with curly black hair played a mandolin solo behind his back during "River of Love."

Benatar and company seemed impressed enough to break another taboo in the recital hall.

"I can say it -- they played the shit out of that one," the Parma-born Giraldo said after "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," making him perhaps the first musician to swear from Waetjen's stage. (He was also probably the first performer to doff his shirt and reveal his tatts.)

It all made for an entertaining generation clash. Most of the kids weren't even born when Benatar notched her last chart hit. When violinist Andra Durham was asked if she'd ever heard Benatar's music before starting rehearsals, the 17-year-old replied, "No, I'm not a real '80s fan."

Interaction with Benatar was kept to a minimum, as the orchestra practiced with her for only a day. "She did give us some encouraging looks -- sometimes," bassoon player Stuart Garlock offered.

Still, the kids seemed to enjoy all the trappings that come with any rock show. They wore laminates and black shirts decorated with flames. In the lobby, a guy sold $25 T-shirts and coffee mugs, gouging attendees as if this were a Van Halen gig.

But it was worth it, if only to see dudes with spiky blond hair mouthing every word to Benatar's tunes next to buttoned-down moms politely rolling their shoulders to the music. The band closed with a roaring rendition of "We Belong." It made a fitting climax, for on this night, everyone from longhairs to grandmas really did belong.

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