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Stop, Pop and Roll

Asst. Arts & Review Editor

Published: Sunday, September 29, 2013

Updated: Monday, September 30, 2013 02:09

Pops on the Heights

Graham Beck / Heights Editor

Graham Beck / Heights Editor

With a few fluttering pounds of timpani, the Boston Pops hushed a crowd of over 8,000 saturating Conte Forum. The tinny percussion smoothed into a velvety fabric of horns, backed by a clamoring string section, eager to show off its playful energy. Leonard Bernstein’s “Overture to Candide” set the tone for this year’s Pops on the Heights gala, the 21st celebration of its kind held at BC in benefit of the Pops Scholarship Fund—this year’s event raised over $4.2 million to offer financial assistance to 170 scholarship recipients.

The Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, under the direction of Keith Lockhart, showed off the breadth of its repertoire at Friday’s benefit gala, with selections running the gamut from Copland to ABBA. In the first half of the evening’s program, the University Chorale joined the Pops for two numbers—“Tolite hostias, from Oratorio de Noel, Opus 12” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The orchestral half of the program was a spectacle of the group’s showmanship, through a program strikingly balanced between intense emotionality and playfulness. The Pops are a rare find among the ranks of the musical elite, clearly adverse to the insular character of the orchestral genre.

On the conducting platform, Lockhart showed no reservations thrashing his head along with the massive electric guitar pickup in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” following the melodrama of the ’70s rock ballad’s intro—Lockhart was cool, hitting his stride as he flaunted his bravado, back faced to the crowd. The injection of rock star ego into the Pop’s opening suite electrified Conte, allowing the audience to emote with the arrangements, and notice soloists’ musical personalities bleeding into the stream of sound.

The evening’s arrangements were riddled with wanderlust, bringing the Conte audience the sounds of Western expansion, with the charming “Buckaroo Holiday,” from Rodeo, offering a liberal helping of home-baked country sound. Then later, the Pops took to the disco era, bringing the crowd to its feet with “Dancing Queen”—decorated alumni and squirmy children alike quickly discarded the austerity of the evening to stretch the seams of their formalwear, breaking the stiffness of the evening’s dress.

Enter Katharine McPhee, American Idol runner up to Taylor Hicks during the show’s fifth season. The featured performer of this year’s Pops on the Heights, the Los Angeles native took to the Massachusetts stage with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”—it took a couple numbers before the audience could really feel out where McPhee was coming from, but in time, she became quite situated in Conte Forum, working with a massive theatrical presence. The pop star was somewhere between Linda Rondstadt and Mariah Carey, sauntering about the stage in silver stilettos, pacing through a marathon of runs and jowl-shaking vibrato.

McPhee presented herself as a rich, sustainable musical resource for the Pops, sitting securely atop the orchestra’s swing on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” Eagerly moving between eras, she transitioned from the 1966 James Brown R&B hit to a medley comprised of Rihanna’s “Stay” and Zedd’s “Clarity,” both songs released this year.

Having attended the Boston Conservatory, McPhee described the city of Boston as a special place for her—at one point during her performance, she declared “I love Boston. I’m only doing shows here from now on.”

McPhee’s portion of the program again spoke to the Pop’s versatility, the thick orchestral sound supporting the pop singer’s complex vocal work. McPhee examined her own career for parts of the night, performing “Heart Shaped Wreckage” from her now-cancelled show Smash, as well as “Unbroken,” a song from her solo career.

She wasn’t beholden to that career, however, and she seemed eager to explore a more diverse repertoire, in one number combining John Waite’s “Missing You” with the Isley Brother’s “Shout.” McPhee’s performance had a playful confidence to it throughout the night. She was quite willing to push the scope of her songs, back-phrasing liberally and singing well atop the traditional melody on songs like Katy Perry’s “Firework” and Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody.”

The former Idol star ended the night with Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” in jest changing the traditional lyric “You’re running high in April / Shot down in May” to “You’re running high in April / Smash is cancelled in May.” It seemed a fitting closer for her part of the evening—in very many ways, McPhee has had a bittersweet career. If losing American Idol to Taylor Hicks isn’t a “that’s life” moment, I don’t know what is. And sitting atop an overlooked bed of talent, McPhee kept a good spirit through the evening, humbled by what proved a very warm reception by the Chestnut Hill crowd.

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