Thursday night’s Boston Pops concert (which I was graciously invited to attend by a member of the Pops’ Public Relations staff) encompassed all the superlatives that fans have come to expect from the self-proclaimed “most beloved orchestra in the country,” terms which some critics love to spout with a knowing wink or a half bored, half defeated sigh: the Pops’ “Gershwin Spectacular” was energetic, beautiful and (perhaps most critically damning) a lot of fun.
George Gershwin’s music is an ideal springboard for the blend of music appreciation, whimsical theatrics and family-friendly fun that is the Pops. A composer with one foot in Tin Pan Alley and the other in the formal European aesthetic, works such as Rhapsody in Blue and An American Paris, with their busy figures, jazz-inspired rhythms and spicy harmonies portray fast-paced, urban modernity without the jarring dissonances of Gershwin’s continental colleagues. Gershwin also had a knack for musical development minus the inundating depth of those allegedly more “serious” composers.
At the same time this song-plugger from Brooklyn knew the power of a lush, catchy tune. The well-known themes of his longer compositions, not to mention standards such as “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You” are inherently hummable and open to a range of interpretations. Add a beloved institution like the Pops, with its plush sound, grand stage effects and conductor Keith Lockhart’s gift for educating an audience without condescending to them, and it’s hard to miss.
Lockhart’s conducting is suitably animated for the stage as well as the music, and he (mercifully) avoided trying to make close to a hundred players swing, opting for an effective lilt instead. Other than orchestral cues, the Pops orchestra doesn’t seem to need to be directed so much as set on their way. They hit all the notes with the right amount of precision and an abundance of joy. Details like perfect intonation, airtight orchestral blend and clarity of textures are somehow beside the point. If the lower brass were occasionally too loud, or principal clarinet Thomas Martin ignited Rhapsody in Blue with a cleanly executed, playful glissando, if the double reeds struck the perfect tone of loneliness over glazed strings during the market scene of American, while the drums rushed slightly under the muddied mix of “Fascinating Rhythm,” these were just details to plenty of beautiful melody and rhythm, which were in turn instrumental(s) to a much bigger show.
A montage of scenic routes, big sloppy kisses and other heartwarming images projected onto a large overhead screen opened the program, accompanied by a bright, brassy orchestration of Gershwin’s “Love is Sweeping the Country.” Pianist Michael Chertock joined the Pops as featured soloist in Rhapsody in Blue, and while his expressionless rubato and choppy, mannered dynamics made the first part of the title an afterthought, he dazzled the crowd with thundering flourishes and finger-busting cascades. Gene Kelly’s dreamy ballet setting of An American in Paris, from the 1951 MGM film, blossomed on the big screen above the Pops’ vivid (occasionally mis-synced) reading of Gershwin’s score.
After their deliciously dainty leashes ‘n young love pantomime for Promenade: Walking the Dog, the students of The Boston Conservatory Theater Division sang and danced their way through a Gershwin revue that included staples such as “Fascinating Rhythm,” Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm” as well as lesser known songs such as “By Strauss” and “Slap That Bass,” which featured beaming principal bassist Lawrence Wolfe showing off his own slap and swing. Classic Broadway style and young voices (as well as youthful slips in intonation and time) made for an uplifting close to the program, and a reminder why Gershwin’s music has become the backbone of the American songbook.
In some ways John Philip Sousa has become the backbone of the Pops, since none of their concerts can close without a rousing The Stars and Stripes Forever. The theme of the current Pops’ season is “Visions of America,” so Sousa’s well-worn march has more of a connection than ever. If the Pops are tired of rolling out Sousa’s orchestral arrangement, which they premiered in 1897, this blogger can never tell. Recognizing joy and tradition above all else is simply what the Boston Pops do, and for that type of honesty they deserve applause.
And goodness knows so does Thomas Martin’s clarinet! To hear his fantastic solo and the Pops’ warmth on “Rhapsody in Blue,” check out the clip here, graciously provided by the Pops.