January 10, 2011
Bell Bottoms and Tiffany's: Orchestra London Pops Series; January 2011
by Brian Hay
This show was impressive right from the opening bars.
When Conductor Jeff Christmas led the members of Orchestra London into the opening bars of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Jesus Christ Superstar' an air of electricity filled the hall. The orchestra played those opening bars with a flourish. By the time they reached the segment that covered 'I Don't Know How to Love Him' there was a charge in the air. This was going to be a great show.
Soprano Sonja Gustafson took the stage for the and delivered a fabulous rendition of 'Don't Rain on My Parade' from the hit film, 'Funny Girl'. What really made it interesting though was that the ensemble did it in the spirit that Bobby Darin used when he covered it. The versatility that was shown here was stunning. The arrangement Jeff Christmas created for the piece had the feel of a Big Band. The orchestra played it as if that feel was second nature to them. Sonja Gustafson belted the piece out in a way that picked up the torch for all the crooners and carried it proudly.
The show turned to more gentle paths with heartfelt performances of 'Close to You' by the Carpenters and 'Ben', the song made famous by Michael Jackson. Every artist loves to have something wonderful done with their work. With Sonja Gustafson's singing and the tender arrangements Jeff Christmas created for the songs, suffice to say that, somewhere, Karen Carpenter and Michael Jackson smiled. The group picked the pace back up with a stunning rendition of 'Daydream Believer' and then closed the first half with an (almost entirely) instrumental medley of themes from films and TV shows that were popular through the '60's and '70's. The set began with music from 'The Magnificent Seven', ran through memorable themes such as 'Born Free', 'Hogan's Heroes', 'James Bond', 'The Man from Uncle' and 'Star Wars' (to name a few) and closed with the music from 'Star Trek'. It was here that the audience first had a look at the operatic side of Sonja's singing. More on that later.
The second half began with a brilliantly arranged instrumental cover of the music John Williams wrote for the film 'Catch Me if You Can'. To fully appreciate what Jeff Christmas did with this go to YouTube and watch the conversation with Williams about the way he and Spielberg approached creating the music for the film. They followed this with Sonja taking the stage and literally blowing the doors off the song 'Downtown'. This was a high point in a show that was entirely made up of high points. This arrangement, one of three done by Peter Brennan, captured the energy and the feel of the song beautifully.
Sonja again featured her operatic side with an exquisite rendition of the 'Concerto pour une voix' by the contemporary composer Saint-Preux (real name Christian Langlade). This was another high point. When the string sections combined gentle pizzicato playing with the subtly woven melodic line carried by pianist Stephen Holowitz and soprano Sonja Gustafson the effect was sublime. The Latin feel of 'Mas Que Nada' (which Sonja belted out with gusto) put the jump back in the proceedings. Sonja followed it with a rendition of 'The Long and Winding Road' that couldn't help but caress the strings attached to hearts. Both of these arrangements were by Peter Brennan. His take on the McCartney piece is remarkable in that it allowed the orchestra to be lush but stopped short of falling into schmaltz.
The show closed with a tribute to the work of Henry Mancini. The musicians really looked as if they enjoyed this piece. They leaned into the excerpts from 'Peter Gunn' nicely. The smiles lighting the faces of Concertmaster Joe Lanza and Associate Concertmaster Mary Elizabeth Brown while they played the theme from 'The Pink Panther' had them looking as if they were picturing Peter Sellers "bimping" (as Clouseau would have said) into things while he botched cases through to their conclusions. What was missing though was the music from 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'.
No worries. Jeff and Sonja had that covered. She returned to the stage for a performance of 'Moon River' that was lovely and thoroughly satisfying.
What really makes this format work is the way the the people involved work with it. The arrangements that Jeff Christmas and Peter Brennan created were dynamic and vibrant. They make extensive use of the entire orchestra, respect the original material and do something new with it as well. Jeff Christmas' communication with the orchestra was excellent. The musicians of Orchestra London followed him with such a degree of spontaneity it seemed as if they were leading themselves. He lets the people he works with really step up and do their jobs. Drummer Rob Inch was on top of the musical changes anytime he was playing. That injected a degree of spontaneity that made the energy level of the performance mushroom. Pianist Stephen Holowitz laid down some fabulous melodic lines. The Saxophone player, Barry Usher, who he brought in on short notice essentially took the Clarinet parts and built an impressive showcase with them. Soprano Sonja Gustafson took the songs over completely. This lady is an incredibly versatile singer. She has a beautiful voice and she crosses the boundaries between operatic singing and crooning as if they simply didn't exist. That is rare.
Centennial Hall was packed for this one, and with good reason. This was as satisfying a a visit to old musical flavours given a new twist as could possibly be had.
This show took place on Sunday January 9, 2011 at Centennial Hall in London Ontario. This write up was done with the intent of conveying the excitement of being at the performance.
Tnis line acts as a spacer.
Photo by Sylvia Miodusczewska
Five One Nine Photography