An Evening of Music and Laughter
As it happened, no whiners seemed to be present at the second performance of the program on Sunday, July 13. Rather, those who attended vociferously expressed their appreciation for the playing of the orchestra under guest conductor John McDaniel and for the performances of special guest stars Carol Burnett and Frederica von Stade. The concert was presented as part of the symphony's "Summer in the City" series; considering the great time that was had by all, San Francisco residents should be thrilled that the orchestra didn't just pack up in May and leave town until September.
The evening began with a rousing "Patriotic Overture" built on old favorites by Irving Berlin -- e.g., "This is the Army, Mr. Jones" and "God Bless America." McDaniel and the orchestra followed up with a real non-sequitur: three sequences from Bernard Hermann's score for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Perhaps needless to say, the screeching strings of the movie's murder music prompted nervous laughter from the audience. (Yours truly found the selection oddly appropriate in that he happens to be in the midst of reading a biography of Psycho star Anthony Perkins.)
The brilliant creepiness of Hermann's score gave way to a pretty little piano piece by McDaniel, titled "On the Water," and then the first half was brought to a close by the alternately joyous, jaunty, and melancholy strains of Leonard Bernstein's On the Town as heard in three dances from that great score: "The Great Lover," "Lonely Town," and "Times Square: 1944." This music has been recorded by full orchestras on several occasions, but I had never before had the pleasure of hearing it played live by four-score musicians in an acoustically exciting hall.
Primed by Berlin, Hermann, Bernstein, and McDaniel, the audience was ready for von Stade and Burnett after the intermission. In a canny bit of staging, von Stade came on first so that Burnett could herald her own entrance with her famous Tarzan yell off-stage. The ladies then launched into "Only an Octave Apart," a bit of special material by Ken & Mitzie Welch that was as funny on this occasion as it was when Burnett first did it with Beverly Sills in a televised concert at the Metropolitan Opera some 25 years ago.
The same hypothetical audience member who looked askance at the concert's programming might also have complained that all of the material performed by Burnett on this occasion was recycled. Couldn't new jokes and arrangements have been fashioned for such a beloved star? Regardless, both ladies scored in "Only an Octave Apart" -- as Burnett did in some "cocktail lounge" byplay with McDaniel at the piano, during which the two duetted on "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry." (Years ago, Burnett performed this same material with Ray Charles on her TV series.) And in "The Ladies Who Sing The Blues" -- another sequence lifted from the Sills-Burnett evening, for which it was created by the irreplaceable Peter Matz -- von Stade and Burnett offered a mega-mix of songs and arias ranging from Puccini's "Un Bel Di" to Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather." It was highlighted by the divas' lovely harmonies in "Addio del Passato" from Verdi's La Traviata and by Burnett's thrilling, belted high notes in Arlen's "The Man That Got Away." (Though the ladies' smashing blue outfits for this medley were uncredited in the program, they sure looked to me like the work of Burnett stalwart Bob Mackie.)