Brian Stokes Mitchell opens Pops season, Broadway-style

| Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Planning concerts is a balancing act for Brian Stokes Mitchell, the Tony Award-winning baritone who opens the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops season this weekend.

“I plan concerts with a particular kind of energy in mind, a contour of the evening, what I want to say, what I want to evoke — feelings or thoughts or memories,” says Mitchell, who will be giving dozens of concerts this season with orchestras, small ensembles or just with his pianist, Tedd Firth.

Mitchell's most-recent CD, “Simply Broadway,” exemplifies the huge repertoire at his disposal. But, he says for concerts, he always bears in mind what the presenting “venue wants their audience to hear. Sometimes, people want straight Broadway tunes. Left to my own devices, I'd be standards and jazz-heavy. But I want to keep the audience happy.”

Mitchell is the star for Pittsburgh Symphony Pops concerts conducted by Ted Sperling from Oct. 17 to 20 at Heinz Hall, Downtown.

The late Marvin Hamlisch would have loved Mitchell's Pops program. It includes such favorites as “Don't Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl,” “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific,” and “It Ain't Necessarily So” from “Porgy and Bess.”

Like Hamlisch, Mitchell loves to provide a fresh context for beloved songs. He calls these numbers “curveballs, fun tunes I've learned over 10 years of doing concerts that the audiences like to hear even if they're not familiar with them beforehand.”

He'll turn to Brazilian master composer Antonio Carlos Jobim for one of his curveballs. Jobim's music led to a breakthrough for Brazilian music in American culture in the 1960s, which was extended by such diverse figures as Stan Getz and Sergio Mendez.

Rather than the expected “The Girl from Ipanema,” Jobim's breakthrough song, Mitchell has chosen “Waters of March.”

“It's a list song, not with a beginning, a middle and an end, but is almost stream of consciousness. I find audiences and me, the singer, are left with a euphoric feeling,” Mitchell says. “There's something special about this song, almost as though it's working on the cellular level of our synapses.”

Sperling is looking forward to a reunion with Mitchell at the Pops concerts. They first worked while Sperling was conducting “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” After collaborating on “Ragtime,” they've remained friends over the years.

The conductor, who will return to Heinz Hall in November for a special concert of music by Danny Elfman for Tim Burton films, will lead a few purely orchestral numbers at the Pops concerts.

He's keen to lead a symphonic suite from “Sweeney Todd,” a favorite show of his that he's never done, and is looking forward to the “Carousel Waltz” as well.

“I think it's a remarkable piece of music on its own, especially when you understand how it was used in the show,” Sperling says. “The opening number traditionally is an overture that is a medley of songs you'd hear later in the show, so when you'd hear them you recognize and enjoy them. Even though the ‘Carousel Waltz' is full of beautiful melodies, none of them ever appear in the show. Rodgers could write eight new ones for the ‘Carousel Waltz' and not even use them in the show. It's hard to remember ‘Carousel' was once new.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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