In the first half of Saturday night’s performance the Long Beach Symphony POPS! moved heaven and earth.
In the second half, Ben Vereen covered all the space in between.
Does it get any better than this?
First guest conductor David Loeb took us through the streets of New York with selections from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The songs require energy to capture the city’s cacophony and passion to render the love scenes. Loeb gave us energy and passion. They require nuance and delicacy to give us pause to catch our breath. Loeb gave us nuance and delicacy. The paean to Maria was ethereal and not a little haunting. His conducting was brisk and precise, brusque and sure. And let’s not forget the visuals. The bows of the string section danced like choreographed fight scenes.
Then Otto Ehling carved out a hunk of Mount Olympus on the piano with the third movement from Rachmaninoff’s monumental Piano Concerto No. 2. He showed great discipline as he passed the concerto’s familiar motif back and forth like an Alpine echo with our orchestra and then let loose with a tumultuous, short climax. His technique was flawless and we soared.
Ehling, a mere 20 years of age, studies jazz under Loeb at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Because he double majors in jazz and classical music and has an easy familiarity with Loeb – and vice-versa - he didn’t flinch when Loeb asked his young protégé and bassist Tom Kennedy to grace us with an encore impromptu jazzy version of Cole Porter’s “I Love You.”
Happy Valentine’s Day to you, too!
Bridging heaven and earth was Nina Whitaker’s solo rendition of “Climb Every Mountain,” from the musical The Sound of Music. The song needs its singer to climb every octave. Ms. Whitaker acquitted herself well. Her voice was soulful. It linked the streets of New York and the heights of Mount Olympus.
And it was hopeful as well. The message of hope reverberated throughout the songs and banter of Ben Vereen’s second half, whether he was extolling the optimism of our new President, reminding us to hold onto our dreams, singing the reverential “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, the dreamy “You With the Stars in Your Eyes,” and the sagacious “It Was a Very Good Year.”
To our immeasurable delight, he evoked the spirit of Sammy Davis Jr. the era of the Golden Age of Las Vegas, the hip swagger of the Rat Pack. All this his captured, magnificently, both in metaphor, “Memories” from Cats, as well as in a couple of rollicking Frank Sinatra standards. Then he brought it all home with the iconoclastic “Candy Man” and, channeling his mentor, in “Mr. Bojangles,” in which he interspersed Sammy’s name with that of Bojangles.
Self-deprecating, humorous, and altogether classy, he didn’t so much sing to us as sweetly speak. He took us to the stars and grounded us in our humanity. He showed us that, as long as we dream, fear is nothing but an innocuous, sweet nothing.