Tom Strini
MSO Pops

The American Songbook, abridged

Conductor Sarah Hicks, singers Doug LaBreque and Ashley Brown perform well, but the program is all parts, no sum.

By - Feb 16th, 2013 02:30 am
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Sarah Hicks

The Milwaukee Symphony took to pages from the American Songbook and to Sarah Hatsuko Hicks, the MSO’s glamorous young guest conductor, with vigorous enthusiasm at Friday night’s Pops program.

Hicks, principal pops conductor for the Minnesota Orchestra since 2009, had the lavish, engaging and sometimes tricky arrangements well in hand. Her big, clear, emphatic gestures drew bold, precise sound from the orchestra. She knew what she wanted and that filled her players with confidence, with the result of excellent ensemble and especially crisp commencement of phrases. This especially fits the Pops situation, with its mutual lack of familiarity, limited rehearsal time and last-minute program changes. Her readings of songs by Lerner and Loewe, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Frank Loesser, George Gershwin and Harold Arlen weren’t always so nuanced, but the name of the Pops game is make the trains run on time and put some energy into it. Hicks hit the bull’s eye on those points, and she was elegant with transitions in tempo and between tunes in medleys.

Baritone Doug LaBrecque returned to the Pops, and soprano Ashley Brown made her MSO debut. These Broadway veterans know what they’re doing. They hit pitches dead center, maintain bright and friendly stage presence, and they can jump genres without a hitch. They’re a little slick and show-bizzy, but this sort of thing isn’t about getting to the essence of your soul. It’s about the joys of artifice, and LaBrecque and Brown have the skill to celebrate it in high style.

LaBrecque dazzled especially in a nifty, tricky setting of Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” He not only nailed the toe-stubbing syncopation, but also found the comedy in the way those crazy rhythms interact with Ira Gershwin’s infinitely clever words. They’re not easy to spit out on time, but LaBrecque’s superb elocution made them play. Speaking of artifice, I loved the way LaBrecque set free his inner 1930s Latin Bolero singer on Cole Porter’ “Begin the Beguine.” And he channeled Sinatra in a ring-a-ding arrangement of What Is this Thing Called Love?

Brown showed that she could belt out a swing number in Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell,” one of several numbers from Guys and Dolls. Her voice took on a disarming, girlish cast in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” in duet with LaBrecque. She became an airy, effortless operetta ingenue in three duets from Jerome Kern’s Showboat. And she contrasted all of these styles to bring a wide, convincing color palette to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring.” Her ardent, almost obsessive treatment of Cole Porter’s exotic, chromatic So In Love made it the most stirring number of the evening.

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Ashley Brown

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Doug LaBrecque

Both singers, however, sometimes ran afoul of Uihlein Hall’s spotty amplification system. I’ve heard LaBrecque and other singers sound great through that system; Friday, both he and Brown turned shrill on certain pitches toward the tops of their ranges. I don’t think the problem was them; something in the room or the system lit up the harsher overtones.

That was a minor problem. A bigger problem lay in the overall design of the program. It veers haphazardly from a My Fair Lady medley to a Cole Porter/Irving Berlin mash-up. West Side Story has great songs, but they’re not really part of the American Songbook, so it was hard to know what the West Side overture was doing on this program. For that matter, Marvin Hamlisch’s A Chorus Line doesn’t fit that well, either, as it came along too late to inspire generations of jazz-tinged covers, a minimum requirement for inclusion in the Songbook.

The Chorus Line medley was there to honor Hamlisch, the MSO’s Pops conductor, whose sudden death in August and threw the Pops season into turmoil. An American Songbook program needs someone like Hamlisch to give it a narrative thread, so we exit the hall with greater understanding of how the songbook came to be and what it means. It’s great to do familiar songs well, as Hicks and everyone did Friday. But it’s greater to deliver a program that brings us to a new understanding of the familiar.

This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 16-17. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206, or visit the MSO website.

What else is going on this weekend? TCD knows. Check Milwaukee This Week every Tuesday for all the arts info you could ever need.

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