In the world of kid pop, Justin Roberts is a superstar. Grammy-nominated four times, including for his most recent and 15th album “Wild Life” (2020), the Chicago-based musician commands a large and loyal following among children of a certain age and their parents.
When it comes to performing in the classical-music realm, however, he’s a relative newbie. But a very enthusiastic one. That’s evident in his latest creative project, a collaboration with eight world-class Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians and two stellar vocalists — Meagan McNeal and Leah Dexter — that will be released June 3 as part of the popular CSO for Kids video series.
Recorded during several sessions at Orchestra Hall, the video blends storytelling and classical music in a kid-friendly way. Titled “School’s Out!,” after Roberts’ 2013 song of the same name (not to be confused with Alice Cooper’s 1972 rock hit), the video includes a classical-ized version of that tune (arranged by Andrew Fox) and a catchy arrangement of “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Countryside” from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral).
“I hadn’t really thought about doing 'School’s Out' in a classical setting,” Roberts says. “But even when I was writing it, in my head I sort of imagined an orchestra playing it. The trumpet’s going at the end, and it’s a very symphonic kind of thing. But I was trying to re-create that sound with a rock band. To actually have a whole group of classical musicians playing it is really fun. It’s so cool to hear other people interpret your songs.”
Participating in "School's Out!" are Susan Synnestvedt and
Hermine Gagné on violin, Diane Mues on viola, Richard Hirschl on cello, Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson on flute, John Bruce Yeh on clarinet, Daniel Gingrich on horn and Patricia Dash on percussion.
Roberts isn’t a total stranger to playing with classical musicians, though, and certainly not to classical music in general. His wife is a professional cellist whose performances he regularly attends. And nearly a decade ago, he hired a group of CSO members to play on his 2012 album “Lullaby.”
The chance to re-create a similar alchemy is partly what spurred him to make the “School’s Out!” video in which, atypically, he does nothing but sing. No acoustic guitar. No ukulele. Just him and his distinctive voice, which together with his inventive lyrics and earwormy hooks, led the New York Times to dub him “The Judy Blume of kiddie rock.”
As much as Roberts enjoyed the process, he thinks the players were equally jazzed about stepping outside their more traditional and regimented universe to rock out a bit and let their proverbial hair down. “There’s a joy to being outside of their normal,” he says. “My producer is used to working with rock musicians, and the CSO players would find some of the terminology we threw around hilarious. They knew the meaning of it, but they’d use a different word.”
While the video and performing virtually helped sustain him during the COVID-19 pandemic, Roberts can’t wait to play live again in the way he once did. “I’m happy to do this while we’re not able to get together in concert halls quite yet,” he says. “But we’re missing out on things by not being able to play in the same room together. There’s so much in being able to read facial expressions and be close and talk about what you’re doing.”
That said, Roberts emphasizes that his experience making the “School’s Out!” video was satisfying both personally and professionally. “It’s just fun to re-imagine something and get to sing in that kind of company,” he says. “And the musicianship that comes out of the CSO is amazing.”