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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"Lights, Camera, Pops!" Sets Tone for an Excellent Season


 
Bob Bernhardt, Principal Pops Conductor.
Photo – Louisville Orchestra.

The Louisville Orchestra
Bob Bernhardt, conductor
Kathleen Brett, soprano

Reviewed by Emily Pike Stewart, with Chris Stewart

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Emily Pike Stewart. All rights reserved.

The Louisville Orchestra warmly welcomed patrons to a new season of its Pops Series last Saturday evening with the soaring melodies of “Tara” from Gone with the Wind. The strings dominated, as is customary in film music of that era, with majestic, melodic lines and rich, colorful harmonies. Lush brass pads underpinned the piece with clarity of sound and sparkling overtones. It was a grand, sweeping entrance for the L.O. into what looks to be an impressive season.

The concept of a “popular” orchestra has been around since 1885 when Henry Lee Higginson, founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, expressed a desire to present “concerts of a lighter kind of music.” The Boston Pops Orchestra was subsequently founded and populated by many of the Boston Symphony’s musicians. Concerts were typically held twice a year during the Boston Symphony’s breaks and included light classical music, current musical theater hits, and the occasional popular song. According to the Louisville Orchestra’s website, its own contemporary Pops Series is designed to combine “a variety of notable artists with live symphony orchestra.” This season they will present full orchestral arrangements of works by Ray Charles, Elton John, Billy Joel, and more, as well as guest performances by the likes of Broadway giants Audra McDonald and Michael Feinstein.

After “Tara” had swelled and faded out to applause, conductor Bob Bernhardt gave his official welcome speech, before hastily apologizing for an amendment to the evening’s program and soliciting the audience’s participation in whistling part of an upcoming piece, the “Colonel Bogey March” from Bridge Over the River Kwai. Mr. Bernhardt’s quirk and candor, which would likely be frowned upon in a more formal concert setting, is here doubtless a major contributor to the Series’ popularity with its audience. A night at the L.O. Pops means a program not only filled with great music, but with several mini history lessons, a couple of heartwarming stories, and even some stand-up comedy. Bernhardt’s warmth, self-effacing humor, and tangential anecdotes are a hit; the crowd loves him, as displayed throughout the performance by frequent applause and ready laughter.

An added highlight of the evening was featured vocal soloist Kathleen Brett. Ms. Brett has performed extensively, most notably as Marian the Librarian on the Cincinnati Pops' Grammy-nominated recording of The Music Man. She began her performance with a fine rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, but I must admit my own inner child’s disappointment when the lyrics differed from the film version not only once, but twice. One cannot question the vocal skill of Ms. Brett. However, one might question the choice of pairing such a classically trained voice with a song inextricably associated with Judy Garland’s much less operatic sound. Ms. Brett’s next song, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, was a slightly better fit.

Before the first of two intermissions, Mr. Bernhardt once again encouraged his audience to participate, this time in the form of a trivia game with a grand prize of future Louisville Orchestra tickets. The goal was to list an assortment of movie themes in the order in which they were played during the next piece, a fast-paced medley. Most fun about the game was the medley’s arrangement. Because of the seamless transitions and constant tempo, even the most savvy movie buff had to be on point to hear every theme present. (In fact, no one in the entire audience succeeded. At the end of intermission, the prize was ultimately given to a gentleman who placed all but one title in the correct order.)

In the second act, the Orchestra dazzled concertgoers with two Gershwin pieces. The first, “By Strauss,” featured Ms. Brett once more, and this time her voice could not have been better suited to the task at hand, reflecting her opera-fan character’s desire to hear less Gershwin and more Strauss. Following this, the simply radiant chords, melodies, and rhythms of Gershwin's legendary tone poem "An American in Paris" swept everyone along into its sensuous reminiscences of Paris streets from the perspective of an American tourist. The short, dissonant blasts from the brass section perfectly mimicked the honking of impatient Parisians attempting to get from place to place in a bustling, European metropolis. This led to a delightful little dance scene; and finally, as the tempo slowed, the trumpet played one of the most beautiful and recognizable melodies in twentieth-century music. The unmistakable strains of a Gershwin jazz ballad informed the listener that at least one American had found love in the city of lights. And perhaps best of all, just before releasing into the second intermission, the impressionistic style response from the strings hinted to us that this love was not to be unrequited.

In the third act, the orchestra turned its attention to the work of Alan Menken, whose compositions revolutionized the Disney musical toward the end of the twentieth century. Ms. Brett’s rendition of the tender and sage Academy Award-winning classic “Beauty and the Beast” could soften the hardest of hearts. Ms. Brett again joined the Orchestra to perform another Menken Academy Award-winner, "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas, before ending her appearance with an encore of "I Dreamed a Dream" from the Broadway sensation and recent film remake Les Miserables.

Closing the program with a homage to Star Trek (in all its various incarnations), the evening may have left many wondering about the conspicuous absence of the most legendary film composer of modern times, Mr. John Williams. However, no sooner had the final chords from Star Trek sounded than Mr. Bernhardt took the opportunity to remind concert-goers that Mr. Williams himself will be conducting the orchestra later this very season. Without further ado, the main theme from Star Wars burst forth to begin the encore – a befitting and rousing send-off to the patrons of this year’s exciting Pops Series.

Lights, Camera, Pops!

Saturday, September 21, 2013 – 8 p.m.

The Louisville Orchestra
The Kentucky Center, Whitney Hall
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202

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