Rock and Classical Worlds Collide in 'ROCKTOPIA : A Classical (R)evolution'

A concert that celebrates the combination of classical music and opera with classic rock, ROCKTOPIA: A Classical (R)evolution, a touring musical that stops at the State Theatre on Thursday, April 13, features world-class vocalists and top rock musicians with the aim of celebrating “the combination of classical music and opera with classic rock.”

The show here will involve the locally based Contemporary Youth Orchestra.

For co-founder Randall Craig Fleischer, who attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the musical represents the culmination of a life-long pursuit.

“I’ve been doing rock fusion projects for pretty much my whole career, for 30 years or so,” says Fleischer via phone from Alaska where he works as music director/conductor of the Anchorage Symphony. He also serves as the music director/conductor of the Youngstown Symphony and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. “I was a rock ’n’ roll fan from the beginning. I remember when ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was the top song on the Top 40 for I don’t know how many weeks. I’m old enough to remember those things. All the music that was classic rock was huge when I was a kid. I then became interested in classical music after singing in the high school choir.”

Fleischer says he tried to create a classical music meets rock musical when he was a freshman in high school. Later, he met ROCKTOPIA: A Classical (R)evolution co-founder Rob Evan, and the two began collaborating.

“I met Rob Evan on a show we worked together called Broadway Rocks,” he says. “Then, I invited him to Youngstown to sing with me in a project called Rock Fusion. At the time, he was working on a show called Rock Tenor. We were doing similar things. We’ve been friends this whole time. Rob came up with the name ROCKTOPIA: A Classical (R)evolution, and we’ve been working on it for five years.”

The first performance took place in Youngstown with the Youngstown Symphony. Though the current show has changed some since that first performance, Fleischer says the present-day incarnation retains the original’s approach.

“Several of the same sequences that were in that show are in that show today,” Fleischer says. “The first show was an enormous success. Rob then brought in executive producer William Franzblau, and between the two of them they could get the interest from PBS, and we shot a special last year in Budapest and have been off and running.”

In Budapest, the group performed at the Budapest Opera, which Fleischer says is “an exact replica of the Paris Opera.”

“It’s one of the most beautiful classic music venues in the world,” he says. “To put in a big rock 'n' roll show in a gorgeous old 19th century opera house makes sense. The visual metaphor is clear as a bell. We are building a bridge between the two worlds.”

The group puts strings and horns on Queen's "We Are the Champions," Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and Pink Floyd's "On the Turning Away," and the show features music by classical composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and rock bands such as Foreigner, Heart, Journey, Styx, the Who and U2.

Evan sings in the group, and the cast also includes singers Ximena Borges, Chloe Lowery, Kimberly Nichole and Tony Vincent and musicians Alex Alexander, Henry Aronson, Tony Bruno, Mat Fieldes and Mairead Nesbitt. Nesbitt is a former fiddler for the group Celtic Woman, Evan and Lowery are both members of the progressive rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and Nichole and Vincent both competed on the TV series The Voice.

“Oh my God — they’re all really stars in their own right,” Fleischer says when asked about the cast. “They have a whole lot going on as individual artists. They have Broadway credits and things like that. We’re just really lucky that the chemistry between them, on stage and off, is so positive. It’s the same with the band. [Guitarist] Tony Bruno [who’s played with Enrique Iglesias, Rihanna, E K’naan, Karmin, Delta Goodrem] is a star. Music director Henry Aronson is an extremely accomplishd Broadway musical director and [drummer] Alex [Alexander] and [bassist] Mat [Fieldes] have careers as well.”

Fleischer says ROCKTOPIA: A Classical (R)evolution works simply because the rock and classical worlds are “very similar.”

“Who knows where we’ll take this show in the future," he says, adding that Rocktopia 2 is a possibility as is Rocktopia Hip-hop. “"It’s all about the expression. Both forms of music [classical and rock] are about passion and all the expressions of the human experience. The music is about emotion. I hope people are really moved and excited by the show.”

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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