The gifted singer-songwriter Josh Ritter performed at Symphony Hall on Friday with his own band and a chamber orchestra featuring members of the Boston Pops. The show - produced by Bowery Presents - wasn't part of the Pops' youth-oriented EdgeFest series and conductor Keith Lockhart was nowhere to be found, although former poet laureate (and friend of Ritter) Robert Pinsky supplied gravitas aplenty during his guest appearance.
Ritter's concert was the latest push in the BSO's expanding campaign to persuade rock and pop fans that Symphony Hall is their venue, too, and - as ever - it's a great idea on paper. In reality, it was an understated and often underwhelming night of music.
Ritter's sheepishness, so charming at Club Passim or the Paradise, didn't serve him in the hallowed hall. This room was made for command performances, not contemplative troubadours. One hoped that brass and strings would lift Ritter's lovely ballads and punchy rockers into fresh realms, but instead - in what's become a common trap here at the Boston-based intersection of classical and rock - the orchestral sweetness and gleam largely flattened rather than fortified.
There were a few exceptions. Ritter followed Pinsky's forceful and lyrical reading (unfortunately tempered by placid musical accompaniment) with one of his most poetic compositions, "Bone of Song," and the orchestra's surprising arrival near the end to play a few bittersweet bars of "Auld Lang Syne" was an enchanted moment. Glimmers of dissonance that flared during "Wildfires," an uncharacteristically abstract Ritter track, worked comparable magic.
But that sort of rich aesthetic mindfulness was in short supply. Many tunes smacked of studio sessions where a classical section is recruited not for a pointed contribution but as a thickening agent. The result is a fuller sound, but not necessarily a better one.
Ritter and his band, a crack folk-pop ensemble, suffered a similar fate when they went electric during stretches of the 90-minute concert. The sound mix on "Wolves" and "To the Dogs or Whoever" approximated a wool blanket.
Ritter, who began his career in Boston and lived here for four years, was clearly humbled to be singing at Symphony Hall - maybe even a little shell-shocked. He didn't come out in full force until midway through the set, on "The Temptation of Adam." Suddenly there was a lilt in his voice, a familiar spiritedness that matched the humor and wisdom of his words. A simple but striking fistful of horns trailed behind the melody, an elegiac flourish to the song's apocalyptic theme. It was a glimpse, all too infrequent, of the esprit that defines Ritter's estimable catalog and the elusive possibilities of cross-pollination.