You might know actor Victor Garber from his roles in films like Titanic and Argo, but how about as a conductor? In a rousing encore to Houston Symphony Pops’s closing concert of the centennial season this weekend, “Symphonic Spectacular!”, Principal Pops Conductor Michael Krajewski handed his baton over to Garber who conducted a portion of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Watching Garber bob the baton in his left hand while fanning his right with childlike exuberance was the cherry on top of this concert of audience favorites.
Opening with Shostakovich’s majestic “Festive Overture” and ending with Tchaikovsky’s mighty “1812 Overture,” the program might as well have been pulled from that compilation CD set “The Best Classical Album in the World…Ever!” During the performances of familiar themes from Rossini’s William Tell overture and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” three screens projected videos produced by Elliott Forrest to complement and narrate the music.
While Krajewski is a reserved conductor, he is nevertheless a peppy personality up front. Krajewski conducts mostly with his right hand, keeping both feet firmly grounded. He also has a winning sense of humor—Krajewski ran on stage to the training montage music from Rocky with his baton held high, cracking “I’m the only conductor in the country with his own theme song.” And the jokes kept coming: introducing Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” Krajewski quipped “Most of you have heard this once…for some of you, maybe more than once.” Before Leroy Anderson’s “The Syncopated Clock,” Krajewski boasted about a cutting-edge new gizmo from Rice University that can read a conductor’s brain waves called a “Conductor Think Cap.” Greeted by uproarious laughter, an assistant brought out a colander wrapped in Christmas lights topped by a glowing blue antenna. With a grin, Krajewski fastened it on his head with a nifty chinstrap. Gimmicky? Definitely—but all in good fun.
The second half, narrated by a jovial Garber, directly addressed the Houston Symphony’s 100-year history. After a Happy Birthday-sing-a-long (the audience was encouraged to blow out the cake candles projected on the screens), Garber recalled the symphony’s humble beginnings in 1913, when tickets ranged from 25 cents to a dollar. The screens ran through historic black-and-white pictures. Next, stars and stripes galore graced the walls of Jones Hall while the symphony played a medley of “Deep In the Heart of Texas” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” But the highlights were the spectacular images from NASA—there’s nothing like seeing the Flame Nebula to feel the weight of our tiny human existence. By the cymbal crashes in the “1812 Overture,” Garber was nodding his head and tapping both feet.
The Houston Symphony Pops 2014-2015 line-up promises to keep jazzing up orchestral work with quintessential crowd-pleasers and some celebrity pizzazz. Jason Alexander opens the season with a concert of Broadway hits, but that’s just the beginning: TV and film scores, blues and ragtime, and hits from the Beatles fill out the year. The season closes with an art and music extravaganza featuring Houston-based speed painter Dan Dunn.
Of course, a Pops concert is a completely different experience from the Houston Symphony’s Classical Series. Prefacing the performance, Krajewski announced he hoped the music would “cut through the noise of modern life,” but this concert did just the opposite. Somewhere between Rocky, the barrage of images, and the “Conductor Think Cap,” I wondered why the symphony alone isn’t enough to charm an audience anymore. While I appreciated how flawlessly the symphony performed, I also wondered how many times the musicians had performed these same pieces of music, and how long ago they had grown sick of them. But soon I was distracted and found myself clapping along with everyone else before blowing out imaginary birthday cake candles.