2012 just kicked off and already I find myself on the front row of one of rock's most exceptional events, Rock meets Classic. After my first acquaintance with this remarkable concert 2 years ago, I was delighted to see it return to the Essener Grugahalle which now, unlike 2 years ago, was nearly sold out. It seems classic rock fans finally appreciate the unique combination of classic and melodic rock, blended with the pompous overhaul of a classic orchestra. The symbioses between this style of music and the Bohemian Symphony Orchestra of Prague is further more elevated by the powerful rockband put together by musical director Mat Sinner (Sinner Primal, Fear). Alexander Beyroth (Sinner, Primal Fear, Voodoo Circle, Silent Force) and Oliver Hartmann (At Vance, Hartmann) handle guitars, and Jimmy Kresic on keyboards. Backing vocals are vividly brought to life by a renowned choir consisting of Amanda Somerville (Thrillium, Avantasia), Ralf Scheepers (Primal Fear), X Factor finalist Tiffany Kirkland, Verena AkaNena and German musical star Sasha Krebs. Indeed, an all star cast which will make stars like Ian Gillan, Jimi Jamison (Survivor, Cobra), Robin Beck, Steve Lukather (Toto) and Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann's Earth Band) and shine brightly tonight.
As the lights dim, the orchestra and Kresic kick off the evening together with Krebs and a powerful version of Van Halen's rockhammer "Jump," instantly creating and interaction with the stunned audience. The towering keyboard theme, being empowered by the large string and brass section of the Bohemian Symphony Orchestra, paving the way for the first highlight of this evening, Jimi Jamison. "Burning Heart" and "Eye of the Tiger" are sung along too loud, but the exquisite highlights of the set are "Didn't know it was Love" and "I can't hold Back," followed by the stunning beautiful orchestral rendition of "The Search is over." The ballad especially gives me goose bumps all over. Jamison interacts with his audience and is a true entertainer, blessed with a crystal clear voice he manages to make the best impression of this night.
Robin Beck is celebrated in Europe more than in her own country, can fall back on her (Coca Cola) hit single "First Time," but makes an amazing impression with the tear jerking gorgeous ballad "Tears in the Rain." A song sung with such emotion and perfection by the lady of melodic rock, that tears are filling eyes around me. The spot with violin solo provides more depth and emotion most can handle. Not only blessed with a wonderful voice and killer looks, the 58 (!) years old Beck also proves to be blessed with a great sense of humour. Announcing "First Time" and "Hide your Heart" with an entertaining act, she is sympathetically funny and proves to be on top of her game. She easily buries the male contenders with an energetic show and this flawless vocal performance.
With a crowd anticipating the sheer brilliant performance of the artists, band and orchestra, Chris Thompson is harvesting success by bringing a set list containing not only Manfred Mann's classics, but his very own "You're the Voice" sung to world fame by John Farnhem in the eighties. Though Thompson has a morel limited range and raspier voice, the song is performed with such pleasure that it radiates fun. Onstage the players of the orchestra have their own party celebrating the hymn. It makes the performance a pleasure even though Chris' voice isn't holding up like in the old days. His energetic interaction with the backing singers, the Mat Sinner band and the audience makes up for the vocal loss. "Davy's on the Road" was a smash hit in Germany more than once as was the Springsteen penned classic "Blinded by the Light" which both come down hard by the powerful orchestration. "Mighty Quinn" wraps up the first half of tonight leaving behind an audience that is overall numbed by the presented show.
The short break was welcomed by many sharing their views on what they just heard and saw. All around me is a pleasant buzz with an undertone of growing tension. Tension, which is rising as the orchestra, takes their seats and tunes its instruments to embark onto a powerful performance of the classic "Hall of the Mountain King" by Edvard Grieg. Steve Lukather is the first one tonight going against hall regulations and commanding people to leave their seats. "Child's Anthem" flows smoothly into "Rosanna." Lukather is not only one of rock's most anticipated guitar legends, he also proves to be one hell of a vocalist.
In spite of his status, the guitars linger doesn't steal anyone's thunder and clearly enjoys his vocal interaction with his guests from the backing choirs. Ralf Scheepers teams up with him for the opening, while "Hold the Line" benefits from the amazing soulful voice of Tiffany Kirkland, also presenting herself as a true at heart performer. Lukather is also known for his lightning fast solo's, powerful playing blended with an unbelievable emotional distortion showcased during the Harrison penned "While my guitar gently wheeps." Even more impressive is the performance of "I'll be over You" which he is duetting with vocalist extraordinaire, Amanda Somerville. Thus Steve and the entire cast deliver the next highlight but he also puts the spotlight on Bernhard Fabuljan and his Bohemian Symphony Orchestra of Prague.
The grand finale is without doubt the set of Ian Gillan. Slight limited by a brace on his leg, the master of classic rock fires away fierce with "Highway Star." Gillan is clearly enjoying the anticipation of the standing crowd, held back by security. Touring last year with Deep Purple and a symphonic orchestra, he is aware of the limitation of the game as well as he is very aware of the extra surplus of power provided by the pompous orchestra. He easily shifts gear, drops the high pitches taken care of by the choir, and simply focuses on what he does best; entertaining. "Knocking at your Backdoor" and "Perfect Strangers" are delivered with such passion and power that is hammers you down. Percussionists and brass sections of the Bohemian Orchestra bring the songs more alive than ever and the same orchestra also makes the bluesy ballad "When a Blind Man Cries" a heartfelt emotional showcase of withheld power. Strings in fine harmony with the wheeping guitars of Beyroth and Hartmann. The first one also gets praised by Gillan for his excellent soloing on "Highway Star" and "Perfect Strangers" swinging his axe sky-high. "Woman from Tokyo" and "Hush" has the orchestra swinging their bows and sticks anticipating the magic of music. Of course "Hush" is not the last song of the night as Ian Gillan brings back all of tonight's stars back on the giant stage for a flame shooting version of "Smoke on the Water" during which every singer takes the microphone. Beck and Jamison prove what we noticed before; they are by far the finest voices of the night, but needles to say that they all benefit from the atmosphere created by each and everyone performing.
True, Rock Meets Classic leans on the successful formula created by the immaculate annual Night of the Proms tour. However, due to the addition of a rock band this event gets an entirely different feeling, leaning more towards rock than classical music. Having said that, I must say that the only thing I missed occasionally were the guitars which were put back in the mix a bit. But that also might be because we were seated first row and had the musical overpowering elegance of the orchestra above the PA system.
All in all: A sheer night of pleasure and a remarkable line up made this event one of the first highlights of the year. With the tour expanding every year, I hope more countries in Europe are able to enjoy this symbiosis of classical music and rock... the seed is planted!
Review by Edwin van Hoof © 2012.