After a fascinating sojourn through Western Canada, assessing the current state-of-the-art of three orchestras (cross-references below), it was a fortuitous time to venture back into the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre and hear the Niagara Symphony’s opening pops concert of 2008-2009.
The sudden departure of music director Daniel Swift just ahead of the season’s launch coupled with the organization’s own version of financial meltdown (could this be yet another example of supply side cause-and-effect?) the conductor’s podium will see a parade of artistic personalities—some of whom may wish to take on a greater role with the band once a search has been officially launched—take their turn in pulling together a cohesive program of music. (Full disclosure: Your faithful scribe has accepted a seat on the Artistic Advisory Committee to assist with future planning—but no spoilers here!)
For this daunting program, guest conductor Gregory Burton took on the unenviable task of evoking the ghost of Arthur Fiedler who expanded then dominated the role of light concert music for a half century at the helm of the legendary Boston Pops Orchestra. The irascible maestro whose considerable baton (enough length to go fishing with in the off season) was only surpassed by his ego was, nonetheless, the darling of audiences (in the resplendent Symphony Hall and most especially numerous television broadcasts) and stoically endured by musicians, soloists and composers/arrangers hoping to grab a dollop of his royal jelly to begin or solidify their careers.
Not surprisingly, Burton—despite an affinity for the repertoire and commendable audience-side manner—only managed to find the “pleasant” in the wide-ranging offerings—seldom lifting the musicians to the glory and pizzazz that lurks intriguingly between the staves.
Bizet’s zesty Les Toréadors has never been heard at such a languid pace—the bull and its master were equally tranquilized.
A test for all conductors is any waltz by Johann Strauss Jr.—mining the Viennese lilt and easing around the dance card of heavenly melodies has befuddled arm-wavers for eons. Unfortunately, Burton opted to follow the players rather than lead and failed to coax the all-important lifts from the first violins when the tune needed to leave the confines of the page and infectiously urge the staid listeners (as the crowd was described on several occasions) to jump out of their seats and accept his invitation to the dance. A number of misfires produced unwritten solos that would have brought about instant dismissal in the Fiedler regime of art-my-way-or-the-highway music making.
Thunder and Lightening Polka, which served as the encore to Roses From the South, started with promise but the tempo soon sagged (perhaps one-to-the-bar would have helped?) and the bass drum/cymbals representation of nature was merely a light shower. In the best traditional of pathetic fallacy, Mother Nature whipped up a furious storm just after the concert to demonstrate to all just how Strauss’ heady crash-and-bang should go.
Moritz Relle’s Royal Mountain Waltzes (deftly arranged by Glen S. Morley) was a completely different mater. Here the music abounded with just the right touches of ebb and flow; conductor and musicians were of one mind—this Canadian content was a delightful treat and whetted the appetite for more of this magical collaboration.
In many ways, Leroy Anderson and Arthur Fiedler were joined at the artistic hip (cross-reference below). The conductor gave the composer his big push, then both succeeded like never before. The generous helpings from Anderson were welcome at every turn—not least of which was Clarinet Candy where Zoltán Kalman (heard to advantage earlier in the Rossini showpiece, Variations for Clarinet and Small Orchestra) and Amrom Chodos zipped through the singe-reed confection with aplomb.
The concert was rounded out with a couple of show-tune medleys (curiously, the students attending had their first up-close-and-personal introduction to My Fair Lady—not dissimilar to the increasing number of attendees who when hearing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 are having their maiden voyage down the stream of greatness) that hit more than they missed but never approached the realm of delectable.
A couple of ounces of jingoism (Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever) added Fiedler’s signature to the performance, reminding all assembled that an election with all of the trimmings is just a few days away and Fiedler’s considerable accomplishments were remembered if not matched. JWR