When Peter Kiesewalter, founder and music director of the Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestra, announced a project to record a rock-based version of songs from “The Sound of Music,” he got a call from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization. “I got a cease-and-desist order from them,” he recalls. “If you sing four Rodgers and Hammerstein songs in the shower, they will turn off your hot water,” he says with a laugh.

As it turns out, Kiesewalter says, “They were very receptive to my ideas.”

His idea for “The Hills Are Alive,” the group’s debut album, was to play “Climb Every Mountain” as Mary J. Blige might interpret it or “The Sound of Music” title song with elements of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” driving the familiar melody like a relentlessly throbbing engine.


The Brooklyn ensemble and three vocalists bring their reinvention of these and songs from other traditional musicals as well as opera to the Staller Center Recital Hall for a Sunday evening concert called “Off Book/Out of Bounds.” Kiesewalter performed at Staller with another genre-defying group in 2011.

“We’re not playing cover versions,” Kiesewalter says. “We’re taking it a step further by using a vernacular that wasn’t around in musical theater when these shows were invented.”

But it’s not just a matter of rearranging them as rock, R&B or hip-hop songs. At times, Kiesewalter changes more than the tempo. He changes the song’s temperament. “When I listened to ‘Put on a Happy Face’ from ‘Bye-Bye Birdie’ with this project in mind, I said to myself, ‘Here’s a dad telling his daughter not to be sad’ — the Army has drafted her rock-idol heartthrob. No one can tell another person how to feel. She has a perfect right to be sad if that’s what she’s feeling. So we did it as an ironic electrofunk version with a darker tone in a minor key.”

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Yeah, it’s her party and she can cry if she wants to.

“We also go back to the roots of American musical theater,” Kiesewalter says, “with some arias from Mozart and Puccini” — played as if Queen or Led Zeppelin were performing them.

There are no plans for a new recording, he says, adding, “Free music doesn’t pay.”


Besides reinventing classic and classical songs, Kiesewalter has reinvented himself and his band. His last Staller performance was with the East Village Opera Company — on hiatus for now, he says.

The Orkestra is joined Sunday by Manhattan-based jazz vocalist and longtime Steely Band member Carolyn Leonhart, plus Tyley Ross and AnnMarie Milazzo from East Village Opera. The band, with Kiesewalter on keyboards, includes guitarist Ben Butler, bass player Jeff Lipstein and drummer Richard Hammond.

“We’re not doing a parody of musicals,” Kiesewalter says. “We recognize the genius in the songs, like jazz artists who take a different approach to Great American Songbook classics.”