The Pops play the hits

Last night’s program put on by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra opened with a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s "Festive Overture, Op. 96." The mood was bright and energetic, which matched the delightful enthusiasm of the Pops’…

Last night’s program put on by the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra opened with a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture, Op. 96.” The mood was bright and energetic, which matched the delightful enthusiasm of the Pops’ conductor, John Morris Russell, and set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Russell addressed the crowd, explaining that sometimes people ask him what differentiates the Pops Orchestra from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, to which he responds that the Pops plays music that is “popular.” This is certainly true of last night’s program, which featured several of my own favorite pieces, along with several of the most well known pieces in the classical music world.

Next was the Triumphal March from Verdi’s “Aida.” Already one of the most recognizable pieces from one of the world’s most famous operas, the Triumphal March has earned additional notoriety for the inclusion of exotic animals as directed by many opera directors around the world, a trend that thankfully seems to be going out of style. Determined to honor the tradition of spectacle that accompanies the piece, Russell opted for a more humane option—he assembled two additional brass sections on both sides of the top balcony, which gave the effect of horns coming down from the heavens. Hardly the only display of grandiosity of the evening, it was a nice touch.

The program moved forward with Nimrod from Enigma Variations by Edward Elgar, and Aram Khachaturian’s Waltz from “Masquerade,” which both added to the dynamic variety of the selections of the evening. Next, Russell led the orchestra in a performance of the first song everybody learns about in their high school 20th Century Music History class (and by everybody, I mean “certainly at least me”), Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” “Clair de Lune” was composed as a piano piece, and is most often performed that way, but the Pops Orchestra performed an orchestral arrangement by Henderson, which was a new experience for me. I graduated from college a couple of years ago, and “Clair de Lune” (the piano version) was one of those pieces that I turned on at 3:00 in the morning while racing to finish a paper and feeling at the end of my rope. This arrangement was performed flawlessly and it was extra nice to hear it performed in a way that was fresh to me.

After intermission, my boyfriend and I had just settled back into our seats when the man next to me grumbled, “Ugh, this is my least favorite piece of music of all time.” I excitedly chimed in “’Bolero?!’” He nodded. “It’s my favorite,” I responded. He looked mildly disgusted.

I’ve mentioned in at least one previous review that I love Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” I have a reputation at parties of drumming on my legs or a nearby tabletop and singing it aloud, even though, famously, it has no words. Whether or not people appreciate this, I will never truly know, because most of my friends have been too kind to tell me to knock it off. Some of them even join in! Which, in my opinion, speaks to the perfection of the piece: it’s just so simple.

“Don’t you know that Ravel wrote this as a warm-up piece for his orchestra?” the man next to me asked. “Yes, I know. Unfortunately for him, he just made it too pretty. I wish it was 30 minutes long.”

He groaned. “If it were 30 minutes long, I would need a lot more of this,” he said, pointing to his gin and tonic. We both laughed. Then the Russell led the orchestra through a lovely performance of “Bolero” and I was very happy.

John Morris Russell then turned to the audience to explain that the Pops Orchestra was going to compete in the little-known Orchestral Olympics to be held in Seoul one week after the completion of the Olympic Games. At the time, I took this at face value, but after doing a fair amount of Google-searching, I can’t find anything verifying that this is real, so I’m beginning to suspect he was being a real jokester in order to really work a gag. I am often charmingly gullible, so please don’t hesitate to confirm or deny this. Thanks.

John Morris Russell with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra
Photo credit: Mark Lyons

At any rate, he said the orchestra planned to play “Flight of the Bumblebee” faster than any orchestra had ever played it, and he brought out a man holding a stopwatch to time the performance (wait—this is sounding more and more like a gag) and then the orchestra played the first note of the piece and stopped, and Russell bowed (okay, yes, this was certainly just a gag.) After a good laugh, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Bumblebee” finally completed its delightful flight.

Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings was a curiously subdued choice to follow, which then moved to Infernal Dance and Finale from “The Firebird” by Igor Stravinsky. Then it was time for the title piece: Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” a bombastic ode to victory made popular in the United States during the 1970s with help by CSO legend Erich Kunzel. Russell told a story about how he obtained his first CD player in the early 1980s and a recording of the Kunzel-led CSO performing the piece was one of the first discs that he listened to. The recording employed digital canons, which, when played at a very high volume, destroyed Russell’s speakers. He joked that on that day he vowed to become the conductor at the CSO in order to “make them pay for his speakers.”

There were no digital canons at this performance, but Rozzi’s Fireworks did provide some very loud, very bright fireworks to simulate them, closing the program out with an extremely literal BANG.

We also got to enjoy an encore of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” during which I overheard a woman ask “is this the one where a man shoots an apple off of a boy’s head?” which I feel encapsulates the mood of the entire evening—it was a night of recollection, theatrics, laughter and great music.

Hilly Kenkel is a former vocal performance major and lifelong lover of music, political science nerd, podcast junkie, and Cincinnatian. She goes through sporadic periods of obsessive sourdough baking, weight lifting, distance running, and gardening. As a rule, she only names her pets after musicians, and she is hopelessly devoted to her cat, Bessie Smith