Placid Pops Opening Saved by Spectacular Singers

Friday afternoon, before I left home to go down to Embarcadero Marina Park South to attend the San Diego Symphony’s season-opening Pops Concert, I was reading New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s current account of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Describing that orchestra’s summer outdoor concerts in varying venues across the borough, Ross focused on one in Bedford-Stuyvesant that he described as “an avant garde hip-hop pops concert” that featured guest performers Leslie Uggams and hip-hop artist Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def).

Although Ross did not proclaim every moment of that concert as thrilling, he clearly approved of the direction in which the orchestra was moving. Based on this summer programming, he concluded, “the Brooklyn Philharmonic was unmistakably alive and unpredictably kicking.”

When I left Friday’s (June 29) Pops Concert at the Embarcadero Marina here in San Diego, I concluded that although the orchestra was alive, it was not kicking. Treading water might be a more apt metaphor.

Principal Pops Conductor Marvin Hamlisch sleepwalked through the concert, and even his insults—his favored mode of podium chatter—seemed half-hearted. Maybe because this program was essentially a retread of the Independence Day  program he conducted here two years ago with the San Diego Symphony’s Pops and the San Diego Master Chorale, the concert proved less than inspiring

Fortunately, the two young guest vocalists, recent “American Idol” finalists Gina Glocksen and Von Smith, rejuvenated the stage every time they came out, and their singing brought depth and conviction to the otherwise listless show.

Smith established his mettle from the outset with his stunning a cappella rendition of the National Anthem: beautifully arched phrases, radiant vocal color, and a serene tempo that suggested gravity rather than flourish. The unusually wide range of this song frequently undoes pop singers, and operatic types tend to overdo its stratospheric phrases, but Smith shaped the entire anthem with knowing ease. Freed from its typical pumped-up brass embellishments, his take struck me as refreshing and surprisingly satisfying

Glocksen opened with “At Last,” a stylish blues ballad—it was the late Etta James’ calling card—that brought out the dark and slightly flinty edge of her strong mezzo. A Chicago native, Glocksen dispatched “At Last” with a combination of affection and urbane detachment. She later soared with a hyper-dramatic interpretation of Stephen Schwartz’s “Defying Gravity” from WICKED that revealed the brilliance of her upper range and her admirable flexibility.

Marvin Hamlisch Conducting

Marvin Hamlisch Conducts Symphony Pops

She won me over completely, however, with her sense of compassion in another WICKED hit, “For Good,” which she began with a hushed intensity that blossomed easily and naturally. It’s a duet, so when Smith joined her, the compassion modulated to passion, and the two brought the anthem to a stunning conclusion. Even the fireworks display at the program’s end was anticlimactic by comparison.

The duo also performed together “God Bless the U.S.A.”: a piece with all the subtlety of a four-wheel drive pick-up truck with gun mounts on the hood racing down a deserted country road with its radio blaring music just like “God Bless the U.S.A.”

Von’s other solo, “A New Life” from Frank Wildhorn’s JEKYLL & HYDE, offered him the chance to indulge the two sides of his vocal technique, that boyish head voice that draws the listener in to savor each dulcet tone and that overpowering show tune belt that certifies he has memorized everything that Ethel Merman ever put on a recording. He would do well to learn that he still needs to find contrasts in his delivery at full throttle and that a wild arm gesture is easily overdone.

But he is young and, as the Frost poem says, has many miles to go before he sleeps.

All of the Master Chorale’s contributions had been sung with the Pops two years ago, although two in different arrangements. Friday we endured again the cloying George M. Cohan medley called “George M. Cohan Salute” and were treated to the Peter J. Wilhousky arrangement of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (it was dated when I sang it in high school, when we were still taking notes on stone tablets) and the syrupy Carmen Dragon version of “America the Beautiful.” This surfeit of leftovers was less than appetizing. Has nothing suitably patriotic been written in the last 10 or 20 years? I know that Stephen Paulus, for example, has recently composed some striking pieces for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in this vein.

The only work that sounded respectably orchestral was Leroy Anderson’s “Bugler’s Holiday,” a pert tour de force for the orchestra’s trumpet section ably led by Principal Trumpet Calvin Price. This offering, as well as John Philip Sousa’s “The Starts and Stripes Forever” and Richard Hayman’s “Servicemen on Parade” were all reprised from the 2010 Stars and Stripes gala.

Morton Gould’s “American Suite,” a dutiful set of variations on the traditional folk tune “When Johnny Comes Martching Home,” at least gave us some pleasant solos from first chair players, especially a suave contribution by Principal English Horn Andrea Overturf. And Hayman’s corny compliation of Americana called “Pops Hoe-Down” touched on most of the songs I recall from my second grade music textbook. Not that any of today’s grade school students would know what that is.

Some day I hope to be able to write with conviction that the San Diego Symphony Pops is alive and kicking. That could require some change of leadership.

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