The latest program in the North Carolina Symphony's pops series saved the best for last: After a short first half of classical pops, the orchestra accompanied the present incarnation of Motown icons the Temptations in a three-show stint at Meymandi Concert Hall. Following performances on Friday and Saturday night, the Tempts concluded their too-brief Triangle residence with a 3:00 matinee. The swagger, showmanship, and passion of the group's act may not have been typical fare for a Sunday afternoon at the symphony, but the Temptations justified their presence as guests of the NCS with a performance whose cocky choreography and heart-melting harmonies elevated simple pop tunes to a fine art.
The enthusiastic overseer of the Symphony's pops series, Assistant Conductor Joan Landry, has a way of putting a sophisticated yet intimate slant on exciting and easily recognizable classical pieces—even if those pieces are recognizable because they're used as background music for Warner Bros. cartoons. As if to defer to the pop ubiquity of the evening's second act, light, identifiable but not iconic works comprised the programming for the first half. The overture to Gioachino Rossini's La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and Amilcare Ponchieli's "Dance of the Hours" from La Gioconda may have been opera and ballet in their respective forms, but audiences today would most likely recognize their themes from their ingenious cinematic use: The Rossini overture casts an even more gruesome pall on a gang rape-cum-fight scene in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, and "Dance of the Hours" provides accompaniment for a group of ballet-dancing hippos and other critters in Disney's original Fantasia. (This piece's theme also provided the melody for Allen Sherman's spoofy 1960s "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" and countless commercial jingles.)
Landry led the orchestra through these lilting, dramatic pieces with finesse before continuing with two Leroy Anderson (of "Sleigh Ride" and "Bugler's Holiday" fame) classical pop tunes — the whimsical, dancelike "Belle of the Ball" and cool, Latin shuffle-driven "Blue Tango," which has the distinction of being the first "classical" record to sell more than one million copies. "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," a tug-of-war between a syrupy string melody and a jazzy, brassy theme, is featured in the Rodgers/Hart musical On Your Toes; the combination of classical and jazz is central to the show's plot, in which a Russian ballet company and a former vaudevillian-turned-music teacher clash, and the orchestra deftly executed transitions and blends in style.
After intermission, the matinee's feature began. A saxophonist joined the orchestra's ranks and the Temptations' own keyboardist, drummer, guitarist, bassist and conductor took their places before the five slick singers — decked out in ecru zoot-suit-style tailcoats and flashing jazz hands in unison — hit the stage with the first of a five-song medley of Motown hits, "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)." With lightning-bolt harmonies and slick-with-a-sense-of-humor choreography, the group — usually structured as one lead singer with four-person backup — segued through "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Ball of Confusion (That's What the World Is Today)," and the joyfully cathartic "I Wish It Would Rain." The orchestra's parts, boosted by the Tempts' touring band, pumped up rather than toned down the energetic music, and the jaw-dropping performance of perennial lead G.C. Cameron was a pleasant surprise for audience members who felt trepidation over the group's lineup. There have been 21 Temptations over the past four and a half decades; besides lone surviving founding member Otis Williams, Joe Herndon, Ron Tyson, and the baby-faced Terry Weeks round out the current lineup. Through the glossy "Just My Imagination," gritty classic "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Can't Get Next to You," "I'm Losing You," "My Girl," and other Motown favorites — as well as a tongue-in-cheek sing-skit that was meant to parody R&B artist R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" love-triangle saga — the quintet radiated casual charm and belted out the tunes with a gorgeous gusto.
The only real disappointment of the Sunday matinee performance was the audience's response to this spectacle of showmanship. While listeners clearly enjoyed the music and doled out applause generously, the Tempts' calls for audience participation — of which there were many — were heeded by no more than maybe 25% of the main floor audience. There's no bigger downer for an enthusiastic audience member than lukewarm or nonexistent response from her fellow audience members; still, the performance's high quality was clearly registered by the audience, but as a group, they seemed decidedly nonplussed during the audience participation opportunities. It's to be hoped that the biggest fans thronged the nighttime performances and helped give the Tempts' a great reception for those shows.