Fort Worth — Few critics get excited about attending pops concerts. The performances tend to include the same few assemblages of film music and Broadway favorites, amplified so that the music loses whatever subtlety it might have possessed. Once in a rare while, though, a pops concert will transcend these ubiquitous issues.
Sure, the Fort Worth Symphony’s first pops concert of the 2015-16 season had the abovementioned flaws—the inevitable oversized serving of John Williams, some blending issues at the soundboard—but it was also tremendous fun.
Even before the concert began, the atmosphere was set—several cosplayers wandered around the Bass Hall lobby, taking photos with audience members. One pretty, green-skinned alien offered a chance to pet a Tribble.
For Star Trek: The Next Generation fans (including me), the big draw was an opportunity to see Jonathan Frakes perform as narrator. Of course, not all audience members had been nursing a quarter-century crush on the actor who played Will Riker, “Number One” to Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, for the show’s seven seasons. Still, Frakes’ jocular manner and well-modulated voice must have been appealing even to those who aren’t Will Riker fangirls. The only disappointment was that he wasn’t onstage for longer.
He introduced the orchestra and soprano Kristen Plumley’s rendition of a Star Trek medley, “Star Trek through the Years” by telling a story about his audition for his Next Generation role and one about a Comic Con experience. After that bit of repartee, he left the stage… perhaps not to return? Was that all? Not quite. Post-intermission, backed by the orchestra, he narrated the character Klaatu’s moving final speech from the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. This is where Frakes’ skill as an actor really shone—his delivery was somber, thought provoking but never stentorian.
And yes, in case you’re wondering: this music writer/Star Trek fangirl got to meet Frakes briefly after the concert and snap the requisite selfie. In person, he is warm, gracious, and quite tall.
The orchestra, for the most part, sounded solid. The beginning of the season is often a bit shaky, especially when playing with an unfamiliar conductor, in this case Jack Everly, Principal Pops Conductor with the Baltimore and Indianapolis symphony orchestras, among others. But last weekend’s three-concert festival must have prepared them well. There were a few issues in the brass, particularly—a handful of fractured or just plain incorrect notes—but overall the orchestra had tight ensemble, the strings and woodwinds in particular sounded great, and everyone seemed to be having a good time, even though many of them could probably perform the Star Wars Main Title Theme in their sleep by now. The orchestra was augmented by the TCU Symphonic Pops Choir, who ably navigated both the “oohs” and “ahhs” that are staples of so many science fiction scores, but also the crisp diction required for singing the theme from The Jetsons as part of Everly’s own clever arrangement of space-themed TV themes, “Lost in Syndication.”
Everly helmed the orchestra with enthusiasm, good cheer, and a suitable sense of fun. He told the mandatory story about how Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra came to be the title theme for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, Everly tells it better than most, and didn’t fall into the conductor’s trap of saying too much.
There were a couple of misses on the program: although John Barry’s theme from the 1980 film Somewhere in Time has a lovely tune, it ultimately meanders about and goes nowhere. Better to perform the far superior 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which also features prominently in the film. Also, John Williams’s “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is as tepid as the film for which Williams wrote it. The most interesting thing about this piece was not the music itself, but conductor Everly’s observation that Williams has the choir singing in Sanskrit.
Even if pops concerts aren’t usually your thing, if you’re a fan of sci-fi on big screen or small, go. You’ll have a stellar time.