The Long Beach Symphony POPS! concerts are getting their mojo back. Saturday night’s concert at the Arena invited comparison with fondly remembered experiences created by a lively mix of excellent music-making, festive atmosphere, and an element that had been in short supply lately — fun.
Under former Principal POPS! conductor Michael Krajewski, our POPS! used to be unique. These self-styled indoor picnics maintained high musical standards while offering a casual, funky, social, and more than a little quirky evening of unmitigated delight. When Krajewski left, the shows got dull. Then Steven Reineke improved the musical end of things, but was perhaps too serious. Since Reineke departed, there have been some memorable concerts, but none that you could call a blast.
Saturday was a blast. Billed as a “Halloween Symphony Spooktacular,” the program featured a mix of light classics and film scores, intelligently put together by guest conductor Benjamin Rous. Everything sounded great, if a bit too heavily amplified. The orchestra played well, and the Long Beach Camerata Singers, making their first appearance as part of a new partnership with the LBSO, added a thrilling choral element.
Principal second violin Katia Popov was simply phenomenal, soloing on electric violin in an orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” received a tight, energetic performance despite the limited rehearsal time, and the bassoons turned in some spectacular (spooktacular?) work in the March to the Scaffold from Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique.” Musically, we were in good hands.
Then there was the fun part. Zombies roamed the Arena before the concert, scaring the bejeebus out of my teenage companion, and approached the stage during the first number, a conductorless “March of the Little Goblins” by one Adam Glaser. A couple of them dragged the conductor out for the Mussorgsky, a cadaverous figure with skeleton head and bony fingers. Whoever that was then disappeared and Rous came on. Funny you never saw them together.
Darth Maul similarly supplanted Rous for the “Duel of the Fates” from “Star Wars: Episode I,” and did a fine job. Rous conducted a tribute to the late James Horner (music from the non-spooky “Avatar”), yielded to board member John Blumberg for the “Superman” march, and then finished up with more John Williams.
There were two encores, the cafe music from “Star Wars” and Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters,” with a guest appearance by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (Rous having mysteriously disappeared again). The audience went nuts, as well they should.
Rous is a find. His friends Cadaver Guy, Darth Maul and Stay-Puft were pretty good, too. The Camerata sounded fabulous, and we look forward to more of them. Popov was, literally, electric. The orchestra was in fine form. And the lighting added to the festivities; my favorite part was when the scrim turned blood red for the murder scene from “Psycho.” Everything worked, everything was fun.
It was just like the good old days.