Ode to Ella and Gershwin, the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra’s Feb. 14 Pops! concert at the Long Beach Arena, was the perfect sentimental-sans-sexy lineup: Those with a date felt slightly kissy, while those attending with a friend didn’t feel left out. In short, everyone went home a little lighter and happier this Valentine’s Day evening.
This tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and the composer-lyricist duo of George and Ira Gershwin actually kicked off with a 1955 composition by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster, “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.” With pink- and lavender-lit curtains as a backdrop, this dreamy number eased the audience into the first set, which included such standards as “S’Wonderful” and “But Not for Me.”
Other lesser-known pieces also made an appearance. “Rialto Ripples,” the first song the younger Gershwin ever published, conjured up silent-movie images of a dark-mustachioed rapscallion tiptoeing about a parlor and hiding behind floor-length curtains.
Though the Gershwins were given first billing, most of the arrangements were those of Nelson Riddle, who played a key role in Fitzgerald’s success. Appropriately, the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra included “Ella Medley,” the last composition on which the two collaborated. It made one think of women in fitted suits and crisp, white gloves meeting men in gray flannel at New York penthouses for three-martini trysts– cool, urbane, sophisticated.
“I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” brought Grammy Award-winning vocalist Carmen Bradford to the stage. Her voice was beautiful but lacked the verve of Fitzgerald. Perhaps she was not feeling well that evening, since she was continually dabbing her forehead and cheeks. To her credit, she stepped in when the lights went out on the string section during “But Not for Me,” telling one of her “Ella stories” while the technical difficulty was solved.
As the story goes, Fitzgerald was dressed to the nines in a stunning white gown and high heels. During “Mack the Knife,” Bradford related, Fitzgerald slipped and fell, her gown flying over her head. As stage hands rushed to help her up, she continued singing. Bradford did the same: The show went on, and by the second set, she had pumped up her energy, skatting like the queen of jazz herself. Perhaps Bradford’s best performance of the night was not a Gershwin piece at all but Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” aptly accompanied by keyboardist Alan Steinberger.
Conductor Michael Berkowitz showed his stuff with a drum solo during “Strike Up the Band.” In “Someday my Prince Will Come,” Steinberger wowed with his keyboard solos. Berkowitz attempted some humor with: “I used to think that was about Fotomat.” Perhaps 20 percent of the audience immediately got the “prints” pun. Most probably never did. No matter: The music made up for any groaners.
If you missed Ode to Ella and Gershwin, you’ve got two more chances this season to experience the pizzazz that LBSO brings to its Pops! series: March 28’s Rhythms of the Night with Matt Catingub conducting world music and May 9’s A Classic Pops Hit Parade, featuring Steven Reineke conducting light classical fare, including works by Ravel, Respighi and Shostakovich. The 2015-2016 five-concert Pops! series begins on Oct. 17 with Halloween Symphony Spooktacular.
For all Pops! concerts, audience members are encouraged to arrive early (doors open at 6:30pm) and bring a picnic dinner– alcohol permitted. Concerts begin at 8pm at the Long Beach Arena, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. To purchase tickets, call (562) 436-3203, ext. 232, or visit lbso.org.