Open with Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture. Close two hours later with John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” (a Boston Pops tradition). Fill the time in between with such offerings as the Largo from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” Harold Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and others equally as diverse.
But wait a minute. These pieces have nothing to do with each other; not style, not purpose, not even function. So why program them together? Because this is The Boston Pops, “America’s Orchestra.”
Audiences don’t throng to a Boston Pops concert for a profound musical experience, they go to have fun and enjoy the lighter side of a symphony orchestra. Sunday’s audience certainly got its money’s worth. Conductor Keith Lockhart put the virtuoso orchestra through its paces in a fun-filled demonstration of variety, technique and big rich sound.
Bernstein’s overture to “Candide” has become a staple in almost every Pops ensemble’s repertoire. It is a glittering curtain-raiser that establishes the group’s ability to overcome some serious technical challenges. Next, in keeping with the evening’s all-American theme, came “Buckaroo Holiday” from Aaron Copland’s ballet “Rodeo,” commissioned in 1942 by Agnes de Mille. While Antonin Dvorak may not qualify as an American composer, he lived here for several years in the late 19th century — long enough to compose his “New World Symphony,” the Largo movement of which was given a refreshing reading by Lockhart and his group.
Highlight of the program’s first half, however, was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” featuring pianist Michael Chertock, who has made this overly familiar work his own. This was a definite crowd pleaser.
The second half left the light classics behind to feature somewhat more popular repertoire, (after all, this is the Pops). The first group opened with “42nd Street,” inserted an arrangement of “Riverdance,” a “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and delighted the audience with Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” Next came two iconic works by John Williams; Hedwig’s Theme from “Harry Potter” and the Flying Theme from “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.” Williams and his music hold a special place in the hearts of today’s Pops followers. After the nearly 50 year tenure of the nearly legendary Arthur Fiedler, Williams held the post of conductor and music director of the Boston Pops for 13 years (1980-1993) during which his reputation as the nation’s preeminent composer of film scores added both luster and an exploding reputation to the Pops’ portfolio.
Which brings us to Keith Lockhart. Lockhart has been the Pops’ leading man for 20 years, which hardly seems possible given his youthful appearance. He exudes energy and confidence. His rapport with the audience is warm and spiced with humor. He is, in short, charming. His musical values are impeccable, and are not limited to the Pops genre – he also serves as artistic director of London’s BBC Concert Orchestra and the Brevard Music Center summer institute and festival in North Carolina. He is in strong demand as a guest conductor throughout America and internationally.
His orchestral technique is expressive, and nuanced. He controls nearly perfect balances, a task made somewhat easier by the virtuoso talents of the Boston players. There were a few instances of exposed instrumental passages being swallowed by the full orchestra, but these can be explained: the Pops was not able to rehearse in Reynolds Hall. All of its incredibly sensitive ensemble playing was a credit not only to the mastery of the players but also to the exemplary acoustic properties of the new concert venue.
Few Boston Pops evenings end without the traditional “Stars and Stripes Forever” preceded by a sing-along, this one focusing on prize-winning songs from films. The audience proved to be a robust chorus having a rollicking good time.
Only one negative marred the evening slightly. On a couple of occasions, as applause died down, a patron in the right rear of the house insisted on shouting comments. It’s happened before. Is this going to be an ongoing distraction? If allowed to continue Las Vegas’ improving cultural image is sure to be sullied.
Who: The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra
When: Sunday, Nov. 17
Where: Reynolds Hall, The Smith Center for the Performing Arts