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It's certainly a thrill

The Brookline Music School showcases its talent, and love of the Beatles, by performing 'Sgt. Pepper' start to finish

BROOKLINE -- Valerie Nelson was just a teenager when she secretly hitched a ride to Liverpool to see the Beatles at the Cavern Club. Even now at age 62, standing in the hallway of the Brookline Music School, where she is executive director, Nelson breaks into a smile at the memory . "I'm [from] Yorkshire, and it was a Liverpool student who said, 'You've got to see this group, they're mates of mine,' " recalls Nelson. "Fortunately, my parents aren't alive to hear this" -- she leans in as her voice turns warmly mischievous -- "but they never knew about me hitchhiking because I was only about 17 or 18." As for the Beatles? "They were incredible. They were just electric, really electric."

Carol Spritz, development director at the music school located in a leafy neighborhood on Kennard Road, was similarly smitten when, a couple of years later, the Beatles arrived on these shores. "I was 14 years old when they came to the States, and I lost it," says Spritz. "I was in love with Paul McCartney and I was saving my allowance to go to England to marry him. At that time, the Beatles were more important to me than my family, than my friends, than anything else."

Spritz never did follow through with her travel plans and marriage proposal, but she and Nelson did recently receive a letter from McCartney, wishing the Brookline Music School success with an ambitious endeavor that Sir Paul promised was "guaranteed to raise a smile": a pair of performances of the Beatles' landmark "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album at Northeastern University this weekend.

The idea of involving 75 students, plus a handful of faculty members and parents, in such a production first took shape after faculty member John Purcell bought a book of Beatles musical scores. He broached the idea of celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Fab Four's most famous album as a way of showcasing the range of talent and musicianship within the school's student body.

Coincidentally, 2007 also marks the 40th anniversary of BMS's incorporation as a private, nonprofit community music school. Nelson loved the idea, and so Purcell and fellow faculty member Bret Silverman commenced spending countless hours transcribing the music and, in some cases, creating new arrangements to some of the best-loved pop songs in history.

When rehearsals began this past winter, scores of students leapt at the chance to be part of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Many of them, it turns out, had been weaned on the Beatles, despite the minor inconvenience that the group had broken up decades before they'd even been born.

"I listen to them all the time," says Rebekah Benjamin-Pollak , a 13-year-old singer-pianist from Brookline. "My dad got me into them. They're amazing. The first time I heard them I thought, 'Oh my God, I really love this!' They're really funky, and there's so many bands who try to sound like them. They're like the first successful boy band."

Emily Palena, 16, of Brookline is singing "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" in the production. Her twin brother, Gregory, is playing drums in the band. Palena says she's "really into the Talking Heads right now, but the Beatles have always been a big part of my life. In second grade there was a poster in our music room of 'Sgt. Pepper,' and I remember looking at it and thinking, 'That's so cool, I wonder what that sounds like.' "

"It's been really fun to watch the kids go from, 'Who are the Beatles and what are they talking about?' to having them sing these songs," says voice teacher Laura Chritton , who claims she plays the "Pepper" album at home to her own kids, ages 3 and 5. "It's been an awesome process, and now they're so into it. I can tell they feel like rock stars."

Some of the parents too. Neil Motenko is a 55-year-old lawyer and jazz clarinetist whose 16-year-old son, Micah , also plays clarinet as well as piano and saxophone. Both father and son are performing "Pepper" this weekend. "It's very gratifying when your child shows an interest in music and you get a chance to do something like this together -- and it's the Beatles," says the elder Motenko with a grin. "It doesn't get any better than that."

Piano and vocal teacher Silverman, 42, has a confession to make: He only became a serious Beatles fan this winter. "I always agreed, from hearing them, that yes, that's pretty great," says Silverman, who grew up listening to the "Blue" ["1967-1970"] double album bought by his dad. "But it's like seeing a beautiful person, where you don't necessarily fall in love with that person. So I had never fallen in love with the Beatles. And then when we started working on this project, I started listening to 'Sgt. Pepper' and kicking myself, saying, 'Where have you been?' It was so fantastic that I couldn't stop listening to it."

Ultimately, tackling the album's sweep of musical styles and moods, from the psychedelic swoon of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," to the tricky meters of the Eastern-influenced "Within You Without You," to the majestically epic "A Day in the Life," has been an exhaustive task, admits Purcell -- even if, as he puts it, "the Beatles were creative geniuses, they weren't technical geniuses."

Although Purcell holds what might be considered a minority opinion that "Pepper" is "not their most adventurous album," perhaps that's because he's intimately familiar, and equally impressed, with prescient Beatles masterworks such as 1965's "Rubber Soul" and 1966's "Revolver." "Oh, absolutely," says Purcell, 52, during a rehearsal break as the sound of warming horns and rustling strings coalesced into a familiar melody in the background. "I was 9 when the Beatles hit, and that's why I'm a musician now."


Tonight The Gondoliers celebrate the release of their new CD at P.A.'s Lounge. Monday Unsane is at the Middle East Upstairs. Thursday The Willard Grant Conspiracy is at the Lizard Lounge. Frank Morey is at Toad.