Sure, everyone still hums along to Electric Light Orchestra's biggest hits—classic-rock radio fixtures like "Telephone Line," "Livin' Thing," and "Don't Bring Me Down"—but in America especially, ELO were never really showered with the critical praise they deserved. During the era of the Traveling Wilburys, ELO founder Jeff Lynne was, to many, the only Wilbury who seemed out of place, a B-list black sheep who looked like a misplaced dad in a supergroup of otherwise immediately identifiable celebrities.
ELO were commonly pigeonholed as either prog (during their early years as a scion group of '60s art-pop nonpareils the Move) or disco (in their Xanadu-marred later years). Neither of these hasty designations really paints a complete picture of the band's identity. Hindsight strongly suggests that ELO might actually have been the closest we ever got to a '70s Beatles, musically speaking. The unfuckwithable streak of 1975's Face the Music, 1976's New World Record, and 1977's double album Out of the Blue sounds like a warped reality in which John Lennon quit the band after Magical Mystery Tour and George Harrison usurped the reins; the rest is (fictional) history.
David Coniglio, a music director at the Portland chapter of School of Rock, totally gets it. According to Coniglio, the concept for a Jeff Lynne-centric concert has been in the back of the staff's minds "for years," but it hadn't materialized until this season—and understandably so. It's the most ambitious show the school has ever done. In order to fully and faithfully replicate the ELO sound (the School of Rock settles for nothing less), the school has partnered with nonprofit youth orchestra Metropolitan Youth Symphony. The collaboration posed a physical and technical obstacle in and of itself: Due to space limitations, the kids have had to practice in a preschool next door to the School of Rock, and the problematic pairing of a rock band with an orchestra has led Coniglio on a citywide hunt for a specific clip mic for the string instruments that nobody seems to have.
Perhaps the most significant snag, however, was in tracking down the arrangements themselves. "I spent a month trying to find scores," says Coniglio. "Everybody assumed it existed, but nobody had it—I contacted publishers; the library couldn't find anything. Finally I found this guy, Phil Bates, who was a part of ELO II. His wife Joanna had written all these scores for that group, so I negotiated with her and got ahold of them—they've never been published."
School of Rock's show will feature performances of 20 ELO songs—the first five performed without the Metropolitan Youth Symphony—and the set covers the group's canon exhaustively, from the aforementioned hits to other well-loved cuts like "The Diary of Horace Wimp" and "Can't Get It Out of My Head." Additionally, all proceeds from the show go to the PROWUS nonprofit, which benefits extracurricular music education, and the Metropolitan Youth Symphony's tuition assistance program.
"It's definitely taken up a lot of my life, and there were times where I thought it wasn't gonna work out," says Coniglio. "But no School of Rock has ever done this before—nobody's ever pulled together a rock band with an orchestra, especially not one with young adults and teenagers, so I think that's a selling point on how special it is, and testament to what we do at the school. Our shit is above and beyond any music program in the country, at least in terms of contemporary music."