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Can rock-era stars like Joni Mitchell and the Eagles stand up to Cole Porter and George Gershwin?

Mary-Mitchell Campbell and Jessica Vosk want to rewrite what many people adoringly call the Great American Songbook — that unofficial roster of pop tunes, mostly from the first half of the 20th century, that have been a staple of vocal performance for decades now.

Everybody knows the music — or at least they used to — the songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and composing teams, such as Rogers and Hart. Think of Frank Sinatra crooning Porter’s “Anything Goes” or Ella Fitzgerald singing Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” and the whole canon of memorable American tunes might start to unfold in your head like the recordings on an old 33 rpm album.

But the songbook is stuck in time and that time is fading. Audiences who heard that music when it was new, or who have nostalgia for they way their parents and grandparents kept it vibrant, are, to put it gently, going away. Replacing them are generations of music fans who never heard of writers like Johnny Mercer, Hoagie Carmichael or Jerome Kern.

So, how to update it? To keep up the quality of the songbook, but move the calendar forward and bring in a fresh group of listeners?

Campbell and Vosk are betting on the 1970s, and the chart-topping hits created by group of laid-back, rock-and-pop artists who made their mark in the second half of last century when Los Angeles was the music capital of the country. The names include Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and The Mamas & the Papas.

The pair developed a concert around an idea they debuted at the iconic “Lyrics & Lyricists” music series at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, a performance space very much dedicated to the Great American Songbook.

It was a bit of a shakeup since the series is best-known for presenting Broadway standards, old-school Hollywood hits and tunes first made famous during the days of radio.

“This was one of those instances where I was approached to do something from the Great American Songbook,” said Vosk, who is well-known in musical theater circles and for her two-year run playing the part of Elphaba in Broadway’s “Wicked.”

“And for anybody who knows me or knows what it is that I do, I’m pretty much a rebel when it comes to what people ask for and what I actually want to do.”

She turned to Campbell, a conductor, arranger and stage guru who has served as musical director on numerous Broadway outings, including original shows like “Mean Girls” and “The Addams Family” and revivals of “Company” and “Sweeney Todd.” The pair have collaborated frequently, including on the popular musical “Finding Neverland.”

Together, they decided to move the “Lyrics & Lyricists” calendar up to the time when Mitchell, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were in their prime. Many of the musicians were known for their frequent collaborations and for hanging out in the area around Southern California’s legendary Laurel Canyon.

They created a show, called “California Dreaming: The Music of Laurel Canyon,” built around many of the hits from time, woven with narratives that Vosk delivers in between singing the material. She is known for her vocals but also for her skills as a humorous storyteller.

Vosk said she did exhaustive research to learn how the hits came about, so her tales are intimate and funny and not just introductions to the tunes read from cue cards. One story involves the creation of the song “Our House,” which Graham Nash wrote while he and Mitchell were sharing a place in Laurel Canyon. There is a tale about how it sprang from a simple day when one of them lit a fire while the other placed flowers in a vase that they bought that day (and that turned into one of the best-known lyrics of the age). The show features a clip of Mitchell and Nash performing the song together.

The New York show was popular with audiences and critics and the duo wanted to expand its presence. It happened that Campbell was serving as one of the Colorado Symphony’s “Imagination Artists” at the time, and needed a program for the orchestra to play. The “Imagination Series” pairs successful figures in popular music with the orchestra’s classical musicians to develop new listener-friendly concerts. Other series collaborators include hip-hop artist RZA and Colorado folk-rocker Nathaniel Rateliff.

And so “California’ Dreamin’” was reconfigured for a symphony orchestra. Scores were created to include large string sections, woodwinds and brass. The score will premiere March 15 and 16 in a concert that features the duo and all of the Colorado Symphony musicians.

Campbell will conduct the program, as she did with her “Imagination Series” concert last season that featured Broadway tunes and the popular singer Kristin Chenoweth.

The pair hopes the musical arrangements developed in Denver will help them get other opportunities to perform that same fare with orchestras in other cities. But for now, Denver audiences will be the first to hear Campbell’s remakes of “Hotel California,” “A Case of You,” “I Feel the Earth Move” and other potential new standards.

Will the songs live up to the greatness of Gershwin, Porter, Kern and Carmichael?  Audiences will decide.

Though Campbell, who works with classical ensembles far and wide, feels like listeners will be in good hands here in Denver. She gives the local musicians high marks for adapting to the new era of classical concerts where pop songs and movie scores play a large role in public offerings. Those concerts bring in younger audiences, though classically trained players sometimes resist the newer music.

That’s not the case here, she said.

“They’re exceptional classical musicians, but they feel excited to be able to stretch into other arenas, even if it’s not technically as difficult as what they’ve been asked to do,” said Campbell. “And I don’t find that consistent, necessarily, in all orchestras around the country.”

If you go

“California Dreamin’: The Music of Laurel Canyon,” with Mary-Mitchell Campbell and the Colorado Symphony will be performed March 15-16, at Boettcher Concert Hall. Info: 303-623-7876 or

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