By Special Request: An Evening with the Orchestra
The New York Pops continued its thirtieth anniversary season Friday night with a concert entitled "By Special Request: An Evening with the Orchestra."
Though the Pops is known for its roster of top-tier guest performers who have ranged from Broadway stars and pop singers to vocal legends, this show featured exclusively instrumental selections performed by the orchestra’s 77-member ensemble. Conductor and musical director Steven Reineke said of the evening’s program, "I want the wonderful orchestra you see on stage to be the only star of the show."
Reineke also varied from the Pops’ custom of showcasing popular American music by adding several European composers to the program. He called this move a hearkening back to the roots of the symphonic pops genre, whose pioneers (including Skitch Henderson, founder of the New York Pops), according to Reineke, often performed popular European classics alongside contemporary American hits.
But before trotting out any classics or standards, the orchestra opened with the spellbinding overture "Celebration Fanfare," written by Reineke himself. It was a multi-layered composition of cinematic grandiosity that suggested the great adventure films of the second half of the twentieth century such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Jurassic Park." It sounded like John Williams on a sugar high.
So evocative was the symphony during this piece that I imagined through strains of anticipatory bells and heralding trumpets a happy army in training, then in fearless battle, a hard-won and glorious triumph, an ecstatic return home and a celebration to follow. To say the least, the performance was inspiring to the imagination.
In the pops’ spirit of making classic and classical musical accessible, Reineke takes time between the pieces to give the audience background, perspective, and context to the music they are about to hear. When the orchestra played "The Pines of the Appian Way," the fourth movement from Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s "The Pines of Rome," he explained how it was meant to paint the picture of the Roman army returning from a victorious battle at the shore of the Adriatic Sea.
Since I’d imagined that scenario earlier in its near entirety during the piece Reineke wrote, I was in no way shocked when he also announced that Respighi had been one of the composers by whom he himself had been most influenced.
In a forward-thinking move by the Pops, audience members had been able to vote via social networking sites for one addition to the evening’s program. They chose the "Nimrod" section from British composer Edward Elgar’s "Enigma Variations." Elgar wrote the variation as an ode to a friend who had encouraged him through a depression to continue making music.
The whispering strings at the opening of the piece swell with somber and hopeful endurance to a bold and brassy finale: the tender growth and eventual recovery following the eerie calm after a storm. Fittingly, Reineke dedicated that performance to the victims and survivors of Hurricane Sandy.
With no special guest singers or visiting instrumentalists, the concert allowed for a handful of the orchestra’s members to take on featured and soloist roles. Notably, concertmaster Cenovia Cummins played the famous "Csaradas" by Vittorio Monti (you know it from the opening of Lady Gaga’s "Alejandro").
The way Cummins coaxed such deep, rich warm sounds from her violin (which, incidentally, was built in Italy in 1716) was impressive -- like the impossibly resonant humming of a big, fat baritone -- and acrobatic given the song’s rhapsodic and multi-dynamic structure.
The orchestra rounded out the evening’s repertoire with other famous works like Debussy’s "Claire de Lune" (as arranged by Henderson) and a crowd-pleasing rendition of Ravel’s "Bolero."
After minor trouble at a previous Pops concert this season, it should be noted that the sound in Carnegie Hall Friday night was crystal clear and flattering to the orchestra’s music, through which it painted pictures and aroused emotions song after song.
For all the humble adoration with which he addresses his audience and refers to his orchestra, the reluctant star of a New York Pops concert is usually Steven Reineke (despite his earlier announcement to the contrary). With the peppy, husky growl of a radio DJ and the fervor of a boxing announcer, Reineke’s excitement and passion for the material is pleasantly infectious to orchestra and attendees alike.