Music of “Mad Men” makes smart Pops
MSO Pops might have found a keeper in guest conductor Steve Reineke, a charmer who can deliver musically and knows how to design a marketable program.
The average Milwaukee Symphony Pops attendee is, as they say, of a certain age. So how would an up-and-coming pops conductor-programmer get the attention of a younger crowd while not alienating the baby boomers?
Eureka — The Music of Mad Men! Such a program embraces a lot of old music but comes wrapped in AMC’s Mad Men, one of the hippest shows on television today — or ever. It’s so obvious an idea that you wonder why no one thought of it four years ago. But Steven Reineke thought of it, put it together and got it on the market. Friday night in Milwaukee, Reineke, the MSO and singers Hugh Panaro and Janet Dacal put on one martini shaker of a show.
Reineke came armed with ring-a-ding swingin’ arrangements from a variety of sources, including a suite of bits of David Carbonara’s theme and incidental music from the show. He also drew on the period songs carefully chosen to accompany the closing credits of each episode, but very sensibly felt free to stray throughout the music of the 1950s and 60s. The program ranged wide — from Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” to Van Morrison’s “Moondance” — but performing style and the arrangements kept it coherent. Latin beats assimilated into gleaming glosses on big-band jazz gave several numbers a little extra cha-cha-cha or blame-it-on-the-bossa-nova mojo.
The orchestra added a full saxophone contingent, and Reineke brought in a pianist, guitarist and drummer to further supplement the orchestra. Thus he had at hand everything required to get that lush, glamorous sound that backed the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin back in the day. Reinecke announced that he had, in fact, brought back the arrangement Martin used for Besame Mucho and Billy May’s setting for the Frank Sinatra recording of Luck Be a Lady.
Hugh Panaro, a singer on the cusp of tenor and baritone, has toiled for years as the Phantom of the Opera, but popera has not cramped his ability to swing. His dead-on pitch, seemingly effortless tone production, great diction and excellent rhythm made him a worthy heir to Sinatra’s arrangement. He sounded just as at home through the whole range of material, from Besame Mucho to Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good” to a pair of rowdy duets with Janet Dacal, “Somethin’ Stupid” and “Feeling Good.”
Panaro’s voice is round and warm; Dacal’s is a focused and penetrating as a laser beam, but the two of them sounded remarkably good together. Dacal did her part for period decor with two bombshell gowns and wore them as well as Joan Harris would at a Sterling-Cooper soiree. But Dacal didn’t sound quite comfortable with “Fly Me to the Moon” or an intimate reading of “What’ll I Do?” with just Reineke at the piano. She hit her stride covering Nancy Sinatra in “Somethin’ Stupid” and in a notably saucy rendition of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.'” She really wound it up for Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” released her inner jazz-blues screamer, and she was dynamite.
Reineke charmed and amused without really saying a whole lot. I liked the way he counted off before numbers, in the way of jazz bandleaders. He saw to the details of some complicated arrangements — he tripped deftly through a Burt Bacharach medley that is a minefield of tempo, meter and mood changes — and just let the orchestra play the simpler stuff. He projected a relaxed sort of energy all evening, and the orchestra played very well for him.
Reineke, a gangly young fellow, danced on the podium when the music so moved him. And by that I do not mean danced in the usual way of conductors; he danced as if he were at a high school sock hop and having a great time. The fact that he’s not much of a dancer made it all the more endearing and certainly emboldened a good part of the audience to rise and dance to the encore, “The Twist.” It’s fun to watch someone else have fun on stage.
The canny construction of this program, Reineke’s rapport with the audience and his musicianship made Music of Mad Men one of the season’s best pops programs. If this weekend is something of an audition for the position of pops music director, left vacant when Marvin Hamlisch died last summer, it went very well, indeed.
This program — the MSO’s last of the 2012-13 season — was given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. It will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.