We don't do pops concerts very often, in part because we find them akin to pro sporting events at which polished technique is often on display but true artistry is rare. Still, pops concerts seem to be playing an increasingly large role in American culture as our symphonic institutions struggle to keep the books balanced and attract new audiences to their mainline offerings. There's a perception - misguided, we think - that if one can get people to pops concerts, then they'll be inspired to sample more serious fare. The marketing approach often involves big name stars, but do people attend these events to hear the visitors, and if so, where do the orchestra itself and the music that constitutes the program fit in?
The NC Symphony's latest round of pops concerts may serve as an example of what's good and what's not in the pops arena. The guest artist was baritone Jubilant Sykes, a crossover figure whose CDs have sold extremely well. He benefited from training at the hands of classical people, and he's enjoyed success in opera and serious concert settings. He has an attractive if unexceptional voice that consists of three dissimilar parts - a lower register that bears little tonal relationship to his mid-range, which is smooth and light, capped by a top that soars admirably but sounds like an entirely different singer. He's also, coincidentally, African-American, but his presence did not seem to attract significant representation from that segment of our community.
The NC Symphony was faced with a dilemma when it moved from Memorial Auditorium to Meymandi Concert Hall because there are fewer seats in the new room and its regular pairs of pops offerings were basically sold out by subscription. As a result, it was necessary to add a third performance to the recurring runs, and scheduling constraints apparently obliged the orchestra to drop the extra shows into Saturday afternoons, which clearly are not viable time-slots. On the afternoon of January 26, the audience was tiny - we'd guess that fewer than 400 people were on hand. Four hundred people in a hall seating 1700 or so makes for a depressing experience for all concerned - the audience and the musicians. In retrospect, this concert would have fared much better in Fletcher Opera Theater.
But Meymandi was the venue, so we must report on the results there. The concert, which was for the most part conducted by the NCS' Music Director, Gerhardt Zimmermann, began with the Overture to Gershwin's Strike Up the Band, given in a syrupy arrangement by Don Rose. The program consisted of twelve parts, and six of them were arrangements. This reflects a major change in pops programming, over time, for there was a time, in the rapidly receding past, when pops concerts consisted of light classics intended for symphony orchestra. Nowadays, the norm is film and show music, gussied up for large instrumental ensembles. On this occasion, there were four Broadway bits (including a song by Sondheim that started out in Anyone Can Whistle) plus excerpts from the soundtracks of two flicks scored by John Williams that served to end both halves. To state the obvious, movie music works best in cinematic contexts.
The program's second item, Randall Davidson's "Young Lutheran's Guide to the Orchestra," featured Zimmermann as narrator and Jeffrey W. Pollock, the NCS' Assistant Conductor, on the podium. This piece, last heard here during a Summerfest concert several seasons ago (when the narration was entrusted to the composer), uses a cute story by Garrison Keillor, available online in several versions, of which the one at http://campoly.com/valvejob/lutheran.html [inactive 3/05] is the easiest to read. The slightly modified text introduced at least one redundancy ("ER room") and could stand to be updated, for Rampal, cited as a millionaire flutist, is now dead. The performance got off to a shaky start when it was discovered that the conductor's score was not on the podium - Zimmermann wandered off to get it and when he returned the music began. It's a nice work that presents a mini-tour of the orchestra, instrument by instrument, section by section, but unlike Britten's more familiar "Guide," Davidson's doesn't end with a big swirl for everyone, all at once. The narration wasn't very polished, and it failed to elicit much amusement from the crowd.
Furthermore, Sykes' appearance, following Davidson's "Guide," seemed anticlimactic. He began with the program's only "heavy" music; three of Copland's "Old American Songs" allowed Sykes to display his voice without amplification, and the results, heard from the main floor, were impressive, thanks in part to his exemplary diction. It would have been nice to have had more of these wonderful songs and skipped Williams' noisy Theme from The Patriot .
Part two was lighter still. After the West Side Story Overture, Sykes gave Beachboy Brian Wilson's "God only knows" (from the 1966 album "Pet Sounds") and an intimate reading of the Sondheim tune, the orchestra played a dull march by Ronald W. Follas (a Charlottean who was educated at Bowling Green State University and UNCG), the vocalist offered two attractive New Age spirituals ("City Called Heaven" and "Mary, Did You Know"), and Zimmermann led a suite from Cats and music from Superman, donning a cape with a big "Z" on it midway into one section of the latter. In this half, Sykes' amplified voice didn't resemble the "natural" instrument heard in the Copland, and from the upper balcony (where there were only six people, all told), the PA system made the sound appear to come from the ceiling, rather than the stage.
By and large, the playing was more than acceptable, but the leadership was sluggish and uninspiring. Zimmermann doesn't do many pops concerts, and perhaps that's just as well. Maybe it was the music. Maybe it was the poor turnout. Maybe it was Zimmermann. Maybe it was just too pretty outside to be inside. Maybe not enough Lutherans bothered to attend. But for whatever reason, this concert didn't hit on much. We've got to do better or not bother.