Boston Pops, Cook open new season at Symphony Hall
The Boston Pops opened its 124th season last night in Symphony Hall. All the traditional festive elements were in place - a brassy John Williams number, a filmic paean to Boston, the classic Souza march, and the balloon drop - but between the lines it was a bit subdued by Pops standards, and I imagine intentionally so. Too much symphonic razzle-dazzle would feel out of touch in an economic recession; none at all wouldn't be the Boston Pops.
The highlight of the night was Broadway eminence Barbara Cook, with her signature brand of earthy, tell-it-like-it-is lyricism. But Cook did not appear until the second half. Before her, the mood was set by a sober 200th birthday tribute to Abraham Lincoln by way of Copland's famous "Lincoln Portrait," led by Keith Lockhart with WBZ-TV anchor Jack Williams as the narrator.
There was a welcome nod to emerging local talent, with a brief concerto appearance by cellist Anthony Rymer. He is a graduate of the invaluable Project STEP, which nurtures young black and Latino musicians, and he's now a sophomore at New England Conservatory. This year he won a national competition run by Sphinx, an organization also devoted to increasing diversity in classical music. Last night, he played the final movement of Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1. The tempos felt too breathless but Rymer nonetheless gave a poised account and demonstrated a particularly fluid and clear technique. It was the kind of performance that made one wish to hear the other movements as well.
As for Cook, at age 81, she is a marvel. Her voice these days now thins out on top and is a bit raspy in the middle, but she still sings beautifully and somehow finds ways to make her vocal limitations into interpretive strengths that convey a sense of vulnerability.
Her set included selections by Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. "I Got Lost In His Arms" from "Annie Get Your Gun" was done without orchestra but with marvelously sensitive support from her trio, made up of Lee Musiker (piano), Peter Donovan (bass), and James Saporito (drums). Some of the strongest numbers were songs by Sondheim, including a touching rendition of "No One is Alone" from "Into the Woods," sung with subtlety and a deep feel for this music's many valences. She went acoustic for one gentle encore, "We'll be Together Again." You could feel all of Symphony Hall leaning in for a closer listen.