Reviews ...

Melrose's Polymnia revives yesterday’s great popular songs

... a smash production at Memorial Hall

by Jackie Wattenberg

Last century’s song hits, and even a couple of ragtime numbers from the 1920s, drew happy applause from Saturday evening’s throng in Memorial Hall for our final big concert of the season, Polymnia Choral Society’s annual Spring Pops.

Titled “Stars of Stage and Screen,” the program brought back lots of old favorites and some less familiar, even scooting back to a Wawiian [Hawaiian] War Chant — actually a love song — from the 1860s. This performed by the popular men’s group “Blue of a Kind,” and arranged, like many of the evening’s songs, by versatile Blue’s creator Bob Eggers. The male voices brought in mid-concert were a good contrast to the full choral sound with sopranos’ high notes always ringing out the melodies. The Blue’s jaunty turn in “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” Harold Arlen’s 1933 hit, was a highlight of the program.

The handsome young conductor, Murray Kidd, presented the songs in contrasting moods and a variety of voices, with pianist Dorothy Travis never missing a trick of rhythmic vitality. Choosing tenor Brad Peloquin as the evening’s guest soloist was a wise move, his voice warmly attractive and evenly produced, his style relaxed and winning. He delivered the romantic message of one of the loveliest of the evening, “My Foolish Heart” from the 1949 movie of the same name, and leaped into the fast nonsense of “Cosi Cosa” from the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera,” a movie still rented for the brothers’ madcap inventions. (Where is such brilliant nonsense today?)

Susan Jacobs and Joseph Cesario began the program with swingy ease in the 1924, still-popular “It Had to be You.” This was followed by a new one from the filming of “The Lord of the Rings,” a wistful “May it Be,” performed with a nice sustained legato. George and Ira Gershwin’s “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” made one listener hope for more of the greatest of them all, and wonder why maybe music from “Porgy and Bess” wouldn’t be acceptable for this venue.

Lots of soloists — young Grace Thompson, winner of Polymnia’s High School Music Theater Contest, performed with lovely clarity of high tones in “Sweet Thursday” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Pipe Dream.” She and Steve Francis presented very effectively a song I’d never heard from “Rent.” The crystalline high tones of Eileen Christiansen were lovely to hear in an interesting song from “Wicked,” and Bob Eggers and David Olsen put over a number from a show by songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb who composed the music of “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” top shows.

In an unprecedented moment, Polymnia bass baritone John Averell took the baton from Mr. Kidd and conducted “Ashokan Farewell,” apparently music he especially appreciates, which, he himself described in the program’s notes, was used for background music in the Ken Burns' Civil War series on PBS, and was effectively done.

The Third Act began with a song from the ghastly musical “Sweeney Todd” by Sondheim, but Kidd gave it an intensely driving force that was exciting — never mind any gore. Also notable, a disarming, insinuating rendition of a song from the forgettable, un-dramatic musical, “A Chorus Line,” by Marvin Hamlisch.

Karl Geller got in the lively spirit of “Fats” Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” near the show’s end, and then a surprise. Polymnia member and well known local pianist Starr Demitre perched next to Ms. Travis for a really exciting two-hand duet to more “Misbehavin’”— “Handful of Keys” sung energetically by Taylor Rubbins and Mr. Peloquin. An invigorating climax!

Throughout the concert, drummer Jim Lattini and double bass player Nancy Kidd (could she be related to Conductor Kidd?) added rhythmic color to the songs, though occasionally a song actually didn’t need added drumbeat.

The last hurrah of this musical season will be this Sunday’s meeting of the Beethoven Society, featuring songs by Marcy Holbrook and Jean Dancewicz, plus Clifford Lieberman and a bit of Dixieland Band. The concert takes place at 3 p.m. at the Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church across from our Melrose Public Library.

Jackie Wattenberg is a Melrose resident and is the arts correspondent for the Free Press

This article reprinted with permission from the Melrose Free Press, June 10, 2009

July 3, 2009

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