At some point during the Grand Junction Rockestra’s first performance the audience experienced a collective brain wave.
“Nobody knew what to expect. They sat and clapped appropriately,” guitar player Scott Davis remembers. “But by the end of the concert they were standing up and all singing along with us. I guess they had to figure out this is okay – it’s rock n’ roll.”
A “rockestra” is exactly what it sounds like – rock n’ roll plus orchestra. The Grand Junction Rockestra is one of two rock n’ roll orchestras in the United States. And though the experimental group focuses primarily on classic rock, you’ll hear everything from 1950’s hits to current pop songs.
“I’ve always been a closet fan of rock n’ roll,” says founder Calvin Hofer. “I’m in the business of artistic music, but to me good music is good music.”
Hofer is head of the music department at Colorado Mesa University. He formed the Rockestra after learning about a similar project a friend of his had developed in Sioux City, IA.
“I immediately said to myself this would go over huge in Grand Junction,” Hofer says.
A partnership between CMU and the Grand Junction Symphony Orchestra, the Rockestra helps raise funds for the symphony and scholarships for CMU music students.
“Symphonies around the nation are going under,” Hofer says. “They’re having to come up with creative ways to stay afloat, so this was another reason for me doing this.”
Hofer recruited friends to play in the rock band section and musicians from the GJSO to perform in the orchestra. After several rounds of auditions at a local bar, Hofer found a line-up of five to six singers. Think “The Commitments” on a much, much larger scale.
“I’m a classically trained violinist,” says Debbie TenNapel. “I’ve never been a part of something like this. This is totally different and so much fun. It’s awesome.”
“(The audience) sees the symphony musicians in a different light,” says principle horn player Diana Musselman.
With their shirtsleeves rolled up and bandanas stretched around their heads, the symphony musicians rock out under flashing lights and billowing clouds of dry ice. Many of these classically trained musicians never much cared for rock n’ roll, but have found themselves totally immersed in it – and enjoying it.
“I pay more attention to the classic rock stations than I used to,” says Musselman. “I really enjoy playing this kind of music with people I’ve known for a long time. It’s just fun.”
For the rock musicians, playing with an orchestra was an equally unusual experience.
“It is so cool when you start playing and all of a sudden there’s an entire orchestra filling in,” Davis says. “The first time I did it and the horns came in, it scared the heck out of me.”
The Grand Junction Rockestra performs four times a year at the Robinson Theatre at CMU. As head of the CMU music department, Hofer has been able to get his students involved as well.
“We use this group as kind of a training ground for our music business majors,” Hofer says. “It’s good training for the students who want to go into a commercial music job.”
CMU students help with lighting, marketing, setup and teardown, and the music library. Many of Hofer’s students have secured internships with music venues and sound companies because of their experience with the Rockestra.
As a relatively new group, the Rockestra has grown rapidly. Hofer estimates there were 350 people at the first concert. Today, each show is sold out at about 650.
“They’re cheering, hollering, screaming. We get them up to dance,” Hofer says. “It’s really hard to sit still and listen to this.”
TenNapel played the part of Johnny in Charlie Daniel’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in the first Rockestra.
“The people went crazy. They just loved it,” TenNapel says. “Any of the fiddle stuff really gets the crowd going.”
Realizing the restrictions of traditional symphony seating, Hofer introduced the Rocker Ball last year. Set in Tammy Allen’s Car Museum, the Rocker Ball gives audiences an entire dance floor to dance, boogie, and otherwise get down. Attendees are encouraged to dress up as their favorite rock star.
As the Rockestra jams into its third year, Hofer has introduced themed concerts, including “The British Invasion,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “Summer Nights, Summer Fun.”
For many, a trip to the symphony is an intimidating experience, but the Rockestra establishes a bit of common ground for rockers and classical music fans. It’s a great way to pack a theatre.
“We just love to have everybody at least take a chance on it,” Davis says. “They’ve never seen rock n’ roll music like this before.”