Recently I was wondering, “What ever happened to the old-fashioned pops concerts?” You know, those concerts like the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler, the New York Philharmonic Promenade Concerts with Andre Kostelanetz, and the BBC Proms, which featured light classics, ballet suites and the Great American Songbook?
Well, the Boston Pops and the BBC Proms are still with us, but these days so many of the “pops” concerts are basically venues for packaged “pop acts” with imported guests. With the exception of one or two “warmup” pieces, any orchestra is basically a backup band for the visiting artists.
That’s also mostly the case in Sarasota, where the orchestra’s Pops series is still a great success and has expanded to three performances of each concert, just about filling the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall every time.
However, I’m happy to report that my kind of pops concert is also alive and well in Sarasota, just under a different name, the “Great Escapes” series of concerts held at Holley Hall of the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center. The popularity of these concerts has each one being repeated five times, because of the limited seating of the hall. And, true to form, the Saturday evening concert features tables, snacks and wine on the lower level of the hall, pretty much guaranteeing a sold-out house.
No matter where you are seated for a Great Escapes concert, you are certainly up close and in the orchestra, and probably as close as you’ll ever be to the players unless you’re conducting the group. It gives an entirely new meaning to the term “presence.”
Last Saturday night, this presence was well-felt with the orchestra’s Great Escapes 5 concert, themed“Sounds of the Stage,” which was well-conducted by Andrew Lane.
This concert opened with “Fanfare” from Dukas’ ballet “La Péri,” which featured the brass choir performing in stately fashion, followed by Samuel Barber’s “Music for a Scene from Shelley,” which featured the strings in shifting melodies and harmonies that only Barber could provide.
Principal flutist Betsy Traba certainly let her artistry shine forth in two selections, the Minuet from Bizet’s “L'Arlésienne Suite #2” and “Sayuri’s Theme” from John Williams’ score for the film “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Christopher Schnell, assistant principal cello, lent his warm and wonderful sound, echoed by associate concertmaster Christopher Takeda, to a wonderful setting of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” arranged by Don Sebesky.
Light classical fare brought forth such crowd pleasers as the “Dance of the Comedians” from Smetana’s “Bartered Bride,” and the Emperor Waltz by Johann Strauss Jr.
Completing the menu of this musical smorgasbord were such popular classics as “El Capitan” march by Sousa, here in the original orchestration of his operetta, a rousing look back to l940s and 1950s in Symphonic Swing arranged by Jeff Tyzik, a potpourri of the music of George M. Cohan and finally the great Robert Russell Bennett suite of selections from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
All in all, this presented the sold-out audience with quite a bouquet of favorites, enjoyed by audience and players alike.
Sarasota Orchestra’s Great Escapes series continues to underline the versatility and the virtuosity of the players, who seem to be able to play any notes put on the page by virtually anyone.
Of course it would be much more enjoyable in a proper concert hall — perhaps still with tables, snacks and wine -— but I’m happy to report that the pops concert concept, at least as I know and remember it, is still alive and well with the Sarasota Orchestra’s Great Escapes series.