Does a conductor make a difference?
I think so, and Exhibit A is the latest Long Beach Symphony POPS! concert Saturday night at the Arena.
On the podium was Eckart Preu, the orchestra’s music director, making his POPS! debut. From the beginning, one noticed more energy, a crisper execution and a richer, more vibrant sound from the band than we’re used to at these things. Don’t misunderstand, the playing at our POPS! concerts is never below par, but this was extraordinarily fresh and exciting.
Preu himself was more active and engaged than most of the time-beaters who have graced the POPS! podium. He shaped phrases with loving care, cued with authority, and showed a deft touch with the lighter material. Most important, he proved to be a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist to the evening’s star soloists.
Susan Egan’s vocalism has matured nicely over the years. She always was adept at the perky ingenue thing, but has developed into a first-class belter as well, as evidenced by her opening number, “Johnny One Note.” This prepared us for a Judy Garland medley that displayed her full range, from sultry to wistful, dramatic to comedic. Then in the second half she switched gears again, and sailed through the soprano demands of “I Could Have Danced All Night.” In transitioning from promising local talent to major Broadway star, she’s still cute as a bug’s ear and has a sparkling personality that radiates. The audience loves her, as they should.
David Burnham resembles a handsomer, younger Jim Carrey, and does things with his mouth that can be distracting on the big screen, but he possesses a bright Broadway tenor, has a nice way with a lyric, and is overloaded with charm. He is at his best in ballads, such as “What Is This Thing Called Love” and “On the Street Where You Live,” but can also turn up the heat in “You’re the Top,” a duet with Egan. Another duet, the lovely “I Have Dreamed” from “The King and I,” was a highlight.
I was kind of hoping Burnham would take a crack at “Begin the Beguine” — full symphony orchestra and a male soloist are how this great tune should be done — but Preu opted for an instrumental version featuring a sultry English horn solo and a crackerjack percussion section, another highlight. The orchestra played their hearts out.
For a change, the instrumental numbers were more than filler. The opening overture to Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” reminded us how many now-standard tunes are from this one score: “I Got Rhythm,” “But Not For Me,” “Embraceable You,” “Bidin’ My Time” and more. “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone With the Wind” started the second half in fine form. And what a nice idea for the orchestra to play four beautiful love songs for people to dance to. That was one crowded dance floor.
With the orchestra at its best, a conductor who really knows his stuff, two dazzling soloists, and songs from The Great American Songbook, the capacity crowd was treated to one of the more sheerly enjoyable POPS! Concerts in recent years.
Who could ask for anything more?