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This Seattle Orchestra Rocks To Its Own Disciplined Beat

Courtesy of Jason Tang
Zach Davidson performs with Seattle Rock Orchestra.

When Scott Teske, a classically trained upright bass player, was in his early 20s, he stepped away from the regimented world of classical music to see what playing in a rock and roll band would be like. Teske picked up the electric bass guitar and joined his first band. It didn’t go so well.

“It was really jarring at first,” recalled Teske. “I really loved it. But just the way the rock-'n-roll world operates is really almost challenging in a way. People are late for rehearsal. They’re not prepared. After that experience I thought, 'Hmm, I really like this rock-'n-roll thing but how can we take these classical values and apply those values to the rock world?”'

Sometimes when the club you want to belong to doesn’t exist, you have to be the person to invent it. This is what Teske did in 2008. The end result is Seattle Rock Orchestra. It’s a laid-back world where the free spirit of rock mixes with the discipline of a symphony.

'It Was The First Time My Dad Didn't Fall Asleep' 

Natalie Mai Hall, a professional cellist, is one of Seattle Rock Orchestra’s original members.

“I get to play rock music on the cello, which is so awesome!” she said.

Mai Hall is a seasoned classical performer. It wasn’t until she started playing with Seattle Rock Orchestra, or SRO, that she could depend on friends and family to show up and really pay attention.

“When I first played a rock orchestra gig, it was the first time my dad didn’t fall asleep in the performance. He was like, 'Yeah, I really liked it. I didn’t fall asleep.’ Thanks, Dad,” said Mai Hall.

A High-Energy Show That Blends Two Music Cultures

If you haven’t seen an SRO show at The Moore theater, imagine this: more than 50 musicians on stage playing strings, brass and percussion, all backing up a few vocalists. It’s usually a full house, or close to one. The energy is high.

Each show focuses on a specific group or artist from Michael Jackson to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. This is where you can see singers, who have their own bands that play in smaller, grungier clubs around town shine on a bigger stage, backed by a talented orchestra. Two musical cultures come together as one.

Credit Courtesy of Jason Tang
Zach Davidson performs with Seattle Rock Orchestra.

When SRO plans to play any music along the lines of Zeppelin, it taps the talents of singer Zach Davidson. By day, Davidson runs a cleaning service company with his wife and juggles the logistics of raising their two young girls. By night, he fronts the band Valhalla Boys and Girls Club.  

If you wrote down all of the bands he’s been a part of over the years, the list would be as long as the one you’d take the grocery store to shop for Thanksgiving dinner. One thing has been the same with all of the groups he’s played with.

“Every single band I’ve been in, nothing has been written down except for lyrics,” Davidson said.

Through his time working with SRO, Davidson is learning to read music.

“Just as a communication tool as a songwriter, to learn this tool of writing music and how to communicate with other musicians will help tremendously forever. I can just write it out and present it to someone. They don’t have to practice it for hours and hours. I don’t have to play it for them for hours and hours," he said.

'Reimagining The Pieces For Orchestra'

Because no sheet music exists for a lot of the songs SRO plays, cellist Mai Hall said Teske and a crew of other classical musicians do pages and pages of note dictation.

“You need to first listen to the tune, transcribe all of the parts. And then from there you have to figure out which parts fit in with which instruments and adding more parts because there are so many instruments in an orchestra. Finding spots where the orchestration can be fuller and there can more of  a string sound to help the emotion, or trumpets can come in here to add more of a fan fair. Just reimagining the piece for orchestra.”

Seattle Rock Orchestra released its first album last year. It includes covers of a variety of artists such as Beck and Radiohead. Now, the rock and classical worlds are blending on a deeper level and coming full circle. Teske and Davidson are working on writing original music together.

SRO’s next show is Nov. 8 at The Moore. It will feature the music of The Police. 

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.