Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 14, 2017

Sondheim & Ella @ Pops/TMC

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July-8-9, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Amid the normal classical fare offered at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in the  Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, two unusual concerts were presented during the iconic festival’s opening 2017 weekend: the meta-musical “Sondheim on Sondheim” Saturday; and an American Songbook tribute to Ella Fitzgerald honoring her centennial on Sunday. Both programs featured Boston Pops musicians, largely drawn from the BSO, student musicians from the Tanglewood Music Center, and professional singers. Photo: Keith Lockhart
The musical, semi-staged in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, features projected video clips of Stephen Sondheim, the dean of Broadway composer/lyricists, describing his life and career, interspersed with live performances of 24 selections from his body of work. Keith Lockhart, now in his 22nd year as Pops Conductor, led the ensemble, including musical director David Loud on piano, in full-blooded accounts of sumptuous new orchestrations by Michael Starobin.

Among the four brilliant Broadway singers, bass-baritone Philip Boykin stood out for his passionate intensity in “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd” and unexpected humor in “Opening Doors” from “Merrily We Roll Along.” Among the four outstanding TMC singers, tenor Daniel McGrew made the strongest impression for his vocal beauty and acting chops in “Being Alive” from “Company” and “Finishing the Hat” from “Sunday in the Park with George.”

The Fitzgerald tribute opened with an “Ella at Tanglewood Overture,” by aptly named music director, arranger, and TMC faculty member Lee Musiker. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, Head of the TMC Vocal Arts program, introduced the show as a chance for TMC vocal fellows “to get their feet a little wet” in the American Songbook repertoire, often for the first time. She and TMC faculty colleague mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe joined six student singers and three student pianists in performing on stage.

Who knew that Upshaw could swing so naturally in Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” or that Ella-style scat could sound so second-nature to Blythe in Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies?” Other highlights were a heartrending take on Carmichael and Mercer’s “Skylark” by TMC baritone Ryne Cherry, and TMC soprano Elaine Daiber’s hilarious “To Keep My Love Alive,” by Rodgers and Hart. Musiker’s witty touches ranged from a bit of Messaien’s “Woodlark” in “Skylark” to Saint-Saens’ “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” from “Samson and Delilah” in the Gershwins’ “But Not for Me.”

Audience members at both productions can say they saw this versatile new generation of musicians here first.