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Baritone Mitchell, college singers get Pops season off to rousing start

| Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, 6:57 a.m.
Pittsburgh Symphony
Vocalist Brian Stokes Mitchell

The Pittsburgh Symphony Pops season jumped off to a memorable start Oct. 17 with a superb program called “Broadway and Beyond.” Baritone Brian Stokes Mitchell became a different character with each song he brought to life, showing his star power comes in many hues.

Debuting conductor Ted Sperling opened the concert with the “Carousel Waltz” by Richard Rodgers. He offered an engaging spoken introduction before leading a performance that was by turns full of feeling and brilliant.

The arrival of the All-Star College Chorus to sing two numbers brought the late Marvin Hamlisch irresistibly to mind, and not only because the group was his idea. Sperling talked with chorus members before they began singing, as Hamlisch used to do.

Sperling and the young musicians interacted well. But when none of them knew who Jimmy Stewart was, and then one of the women said she'd heard of him because she was from his hometown but had never seen any of his films, Hamlisch would have been ready with a great line. People with the comedic gift live for setups like that.

The choir was beautifully prepared, as always with light acting, and was irresistible in “Hey, Babe, Hey” from “Born to Dance” and “Quiet Night” from “On Your Toes.”

The pre-soloist portion of the program concluded with a powerful 14-minute Symphonic Suite from Stephen Sondheim's “Sweeney Todd,” by Don Sebesky. Sperling led an insightful and affectionate performance, which was very well-played by the orchestra and a highlight of the concert.

When Mitchell came out near the end of the first half, he warmly greeted the conductor, a longtime friend and colleague. In both “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific” and a Gershwin medley of four songs, Mitchell showed the flexibility of his beautiful voice, his distinctive emphasis on the words, and his lively sense of rhythm.

Mitchell introduced each of his songs in a natural manner, fairly relaxed and spontaneous. But when each song began, he inhabited the character as though we had popped into a stage performance. It was even in his eyes when he sang “Stars” from “Les Miserables” with inner pressure.

“Waters of March” by Antonio Carlos Jobim was a mesermizing experience lifted euphorically at the end by two short instrumental bits Mitchell played on the melodica — a keyed instrument related to the harmonica.

A complete contrast followed with “What Kind of Fool Am I?” from “Stop the World — I Want to Get Off,” in which Mitchell was accompanied only by his regular pianist, Tedd Firth. Firth set the tone with true artistry, all the more introspectively affecting because it was so well poised. He had shown similar sensitivity in a bridge in “How to Handle a Woman” from “Camelot.”

Mitchell introduced the final numbers by asking the audience if anyone had been following the news. “Me neither,” he said wryly.

Then he sang “America the Beautiful” as a solo, with no instruments and no show biz, just sincere love of country. It led directly into “Wheels of a Dream” from “Ragtime,” the Broadway show on which the singer and conductor had collaborated most closely.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Pops' “Broadway and Beyond” will be repeated at 8 p.m. Oct. 19 and 2:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $25.75 to $119.75. Details: 412-392-4900 or www.pittsburghsymphony.org

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

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