When conductor Jason Love comes onstage wearing a brown cowboy hat, and concertmistress Brenda Anna dons Princess Leia braids during intermission, you can bet it's not just another night at the symphony.
Indeed, Saturday night at Jim Rouse Theatre proved a delightfully different musical affair as the Columbia Orchestra concluded its 25th anniversary season with a "Symphonic Pops" program of selections by Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, George Gershwin and film composer par excellence, John Williams.
It is to Williams' brilliant score from Star Wars we must turn to first, for the orchestra delivered the snappiest playing of the evening in a five-movement suite excerpted from the memorable sci-fi film.
The brasses were simply excellent, especially the trumpet section, which takes the lead in so much of the score, particularly the flamboyant "Main Title" and Darth Vader's emphatically sinister "Imperial March."
We also were treated to a gorgeous flute solo in Yoda's evocative theme, and a handsome interlude from the appropriately coifed concertmistress in Princess Leia's lyrical segment.
The most idiomatically symphonic work on the program, in short, yielded the most impressive results. Elsewhere, things weren't quite as convincing.
A medley of songs from Rodgers' "Oklahoma!" took a while to gel, with a labored introduction conveying little of the magic to follow.
Happily, by the time the arrangement got us to the breezy "Many a New Day," "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and the underrated waltz "Out of My Dreams," the melodies of this celestial Broadway score were singing out with authority.
Also troublesome were the transitions in a set of Ellington songs that included such masterworks as "Caravan," "Sophisticated Lady," and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got that Swing." Tempos took way too long to establish themselves, and one wonders why a bona fide jazz drummer wasn't brought in to keep the beat moving with authority.
True to form, though, it was the trumpets who came to the rescue, providing the best Ellington moments of all.
Ferebee Thulman, the sculptor and graphic artist who also sings jazz tunes with the Last Chance Jazz Band at Columbia's Last Chance Saloon, was on hand to contribute songs by Gershwin and Shaw to the appreciative audience.
I have to say that there wasn't much give and take between the singer and her pianist in Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and "S' Wonderful," as the keyboard was placed behind the orchestra with the singer, of course, way up front. What emerged, though pleasant enough, was hardly a collaborative affair.
Better was the Shaw set, highlighted by a delightful "Make Love to Me." Shaw may have been a driven guy who didn't derive much sustained satisfaction from his music-making, but what joy his feisty melodies (often "sung" by his own instrument, the clarinet) have bequeathed to the world.