Dallas — The Dallas Symphony Orchestra Pops Series draws big crowds for music that is typically accessible and fun to listen to. Friday night’s performance by the DSO and singer Sylvia McNair was certainly accessible, but it was not always fun.
First, the good. The orchestra sounded great. Although some of the principals and other symphony mainstays do not perform in pops concerts, the orchestra has so much depth these days that the level of musicianship remains exemplary. Pops music, though typically musically undemanding, can require considerable technical skill—tricky, high string parts, for example, are de rigueur in show tunes, as is at least one extended, plaintive English horn solo. All of this went off smashingly Friday in the first half of the program, which included a mish-mash of Broadway favorites including medleys from My Fair Lady and Camelot, “Seventy-Six Trombones” from The Music Man, and the title number from Jesus Christ Superstar.
Most interesting were three waltzes from Sondheim’s A Little Night Music featuring, of course, the ubiquitous “Send in the Clowns” as well as two with a bit more Sondheim quirk—Tyzik characterized them as “weird.” The substantial audience seemed to be having fun and the orchestra appeared to be relatively committed, even though, well, does a person really go to conservatory for four to six years to play “Seventy-Six Trombones” for the 77th time?
Tyzik’s own arrangement of the music of Marvin Hamlisch, which was the only instrumental offering on the second half of the program, was an inspired reworking of some of Hamlisch’s most popular tunes. It received a standing ovation, in fact. The jazz rhythm section performing on this and on the Gershwin tunes was in the pocket, and integrated skillfully with the orchestra.
The remainder of the program, a set of Gershwin songs sung by Sylvia McNair, was notably less successful. McNair, formerly an opera singer, has turned in recent decades to interpretations of Broadway and jazz tunes. Friday night’s performance did not show McNair to best advantage. The amplified vocals were hugely overbalanced—the orchestra’s consistently fine playing disappeared utterly into the background—-and painfully bright. It is a mystery that this was not obvious in sound check. Additionally, pitch was a continual issue for McNair—perhaps monitor problems were at fault. One audience member mused that Auto-Tune would have helped. Ouch.
Part of the point of Pops concerts is to introduce a little bit of levity and a little bit of spectacle into orchestral concerts, introducing one of the country’s truly great orchestras to audiences who might not find the classical subscription series compelling. Some small attempts were made in this vein—the colored spotlights illuminating the largest pipes of the Meyerson’s Lay Family Concert Organ in changing disco hues of pink, turquoise, and yellow, Jeff Tyzik’s sparkly tie and genuinely warm remarks—but somehow it wasn’t quite enough to counterbalance the problems in the second half.
Performing songs from the great American songbook, perhaps especially the music of Gershwin, has the potential to be truly “’S Wonderful.” Maybe next time.