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The Police's Stewart Copeland and RPO are teaming up for a night of derangement

Stewart Copeland sits with a guitar.
Stewart Copeland publicity photo.

Stewart Copeland knows what he’ll be facing Friday afternoon when he walks into Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre to prepare for that evening’s show.

There it is, waiting for him: The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. What? They’re going to play “Roxanne” and other hits by The Police from the days when MTV videos mattered?

“The woodwinds looking kinda fierce and slightly disapproving,” says Copeland, who was the band's drummer.

But he’s done this about 20 times already; music breaks down that wall.

“They’re easy to warm up to, they are brothers and sisters musicians,” Copeland says. “I always enjoy breaking the ice in that way.”

And they’re here with a shared purpose. The show is called “Police Deranged for Orchestra.”

“What I think makes my work stand out is the disrespect that I bring to the party,” Copeland says. “Great love and admiration for my colleagues and the songs that Sting wrote, and everything like that. But complete abandon when it comes to messing with it.”

In orchestrating the music of an Elton John, Copeland says, he wouldn’t want to stray beyond “the straight and narrow.” Mess with Elton, and his fans would be hurtling ushers from the balcony.

But, Copeland says of the music he helped create, “In this case, I have taken wild liberties. With love and admiration in my heart, I have carved the songs up.”

Copeland places a lot of emphasis on the word “wild.” He insists the songs remain recognizable. Somewhat.

What he’s doing in “Police Deranged for Orchestra” is inspiration derived from a vast catalog of multi-tracks and alternate versions of songs from The Police catalog: obscure guitar lines, unique vocal approaches and inspiration drawn from live recordings filled with extrapolations and improvisations created by the band itself.

Deranging The Police, Copeland says, means arrangements that are “a mix of Police-y elements.”

It is a process, he says, that is “a little fresher than people who are too respectful.”

Copeland’s mother was an archaeologist, his father was an early employee of the CIA. That set up Copeland for living the exotic life. Born in Virginia, he followed his parents to Cairo, Beirut, and England. He went to college in California, where he lives today.

Since The Police broke up for good in 2008, Copeland has been a dervish of activity. He has a rock band, Gizmodrone, that includes guitarist Adrian Belew. He’ll soon be publishing a book, “Stewart Copeland’s Police Diaries.”

His résumé already includes decades composing film soundtracks. The first one was for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 movie, “Rumblefish,” which imaginatively included car horns and ticking clocks in the mix.

“Since I didn’t know how to do it, I did it all different,” Copeland says. “Which is another word for revolutionary.

“Revolutionary and wrong are sometimes the same thing.”

His free-range music tastes have also included “Divine Tides,” a New Age album that won a Grammy last January for “Best Immersive Audio Album.”

And he’s also been writing … opera?

But The Police remains Copeland’s primary identity. And now this “Deranged” idea, which will fuse the RPO with three backing singers and a rock band, with Copeland on percussion playing the music he created with lead singer and bassist Sting and guitarist Andy Summers.

“I’m the musician I am today through association with those two guys,” Copeland says. “And I’m not sure when my own original inspiration from the cradle ends and the inspiration I got from those two guys begins. It’s kind of merged.”

Merged, although not always smoothly.

“We fought tooth and nail over the creation of the music,” he says.

Fresh out of a prog rock band, Curved Air, in 1976, Copeland was in England and happened to catch a performance by a jazz-fusion band, Last Exit. Copeland was captivated by the bassist and singer, Sting, and convinced him to join him in creating a new punk band.

They were, Copeland says, “two fake punks.” They called themselves punks as “a flag of convenience. It was the only way to get a gig.” Prog rock was dead, but “those punk clubs were wild, a wild scene, and so we cut our hair, got out the skinny black pants and leather jackets and flew under that flag of convenience.”

Plying the New York City scene, they met Summers, who had a successful career going as a session guitarist. Inexplicably, Summers wanted in on this completely unrealized vision presented by Copeland and Sting.

“You’re going to have to carry your own amp,” they told him.

“Sting had not yet written ‘Roxanne,’ not ‘Message in a Bottle,’ not ‘Every Breath You Take,’” Copeland says. “We had no idea what Sting could do when we bonded. We just knew we were the right musicians for each other before we had even figured out what to play.

“And then Sting started writing those songs.”

“We abandoned our original artistic intent, we sold out and started to play actual music.”

And the hard times evolved into good times, a career that led to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Copeland had already moved on to composing film soundtracks.

“Love the work, hate the business,” he says.

“The good thing about being a hired gun is that it forces you to go places that an artist would not go, because their own instincts do not lead in that direction.

“The director needs the scene to start out cheerful. Then have a little jolt of doubt, and then feel the love with an underlying sense of DOOM!”

It is music, he says, that “goes past your brain, right to your heart.”

And now, on to opera?

“It’s kind of rarifying, not everyone loves the sound of those opera singers,” he says. “I myself have drunk the Kool-Aid. I love that sound.

“It’s not Broadway. In Broadway, everyone runs scared, there’s a huge amount of money involved,” Copeland says. “But some of the same pieces are involved. The theater, the stage, the orchestra, the infrastructure. The urge to ask, ‘Please sir, can I play with these toys, to tell stories with music?’” he says. “That’s why I do opera.”

Meanwhile, that music by The Police was living a quiet life in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Until Copeland picked up those pieces once again.

“Some were easier to derange,” he says. “Some were easier to mess up than others.

“None of the songs were broke, which is no reason to not fix them. But something like ‘Message in a Bottle’ is like a diamond, you cannot cut it up, the integrity of the form cannot be disassembled.”

So some — “Roxanne” is another example, Copeland says — do not lend themselves to meddling. But many others, “Oh, those are deranged up good. With an orchestra blasting away in it.”

Rock bands and orchestras are two different animals, but not for the obvious reasons. “You rehearse for six weeks with a rock band,” Copeland says. With an orchestra, “you show up with the score, flop it down on the stands and count 'em in.”

And what is the reaction from the other two Policemen to this upscale vision of their music?

“No word from Andy, um, he ah… no word from Andy,” Copeland says, with a bit of an uncertain pause.

“But Sting’s totally supportive, he’s all over it. He likes to have people cover his songs, makes him feel like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Which is sort of, believe it or not, how he sees himself, as a songwriter of import through the ages. And the more people singing his songs and the more variety of interpretations of his songs, the happier he is.

“And we get along pretty well. I sent him some scores, just to make him go cross-eyed, and he’s very supportive. He’s going to come to one of these shows when our paths cross.”

Those paths are well-lit. Copeland ticks off a list of Sting’s real-estate holdings. Homes in Italy, England, a penthouse apartment in New York City, “a double-wide Malibu property he bought from Larry Hagman. His wife bought him Wordsworth’s cottage in Cheshire as a birthday present. Turns out he didn’t like Wordsworth.”

No matter. “When you write songs like that, you deserve to live in six houses.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.