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Pittsburgh Pops rustles up Western standards

| Saturday, May 18, 2002

Wear boots if you've got them to Heinz Hall this weekend because the Pops is offering dude ranch fun in a program called "Marvin's Wild, Wild West."

The Pops' principal conductor, Marvin Hamlisch grew up in New York City, and like city boys of his generation picked up Western lore from movies and television. Hamlisch and the featured guests, Riders in the Sky, served up an evening of cowboy music with winks and smiles. Hamlisch may have come onstage for the second half wearing a 10-gallon hat, but he knows the most recent thing he's roped is a Tony nomination for his new Broadway show, "Sweet Smell of Success."

Elmer Bernstein's score for the film "The Magnificent Seven" provided a bold and tuneful opening for the symphonic first half, with segues laced with Hamlisch's bemused humor.

The pace eased for "On the Trail" from Ferde Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," which the orchestra recorded for Sony in 1994. Percussionist Jerry Unger was placed at the front of the stage for the audience to see how he used temple blocks to produce the sound of a horse loping along.

The humor was musical in "Orange Blossom Special," which begins with an imitation of a train starting up. As it picked up speed, a host of musical quotes provoked smiles. And when versatile Jennifer Orchard stepped up to the microphone in a striking outfit for some fancy country fiddlin,' that old train was flying.

Gears shifted for the introspective harmonica solo "Once Upon a Time in the West" by spaghetti-Western film composer Enrico Morricone. Soloist Michael Runyan, who played beautifully, is a librarian of the Indianapolis Symphony.

The first half concluded with a suite from Dimitri Tiomkin's score for "High Noon," introduced and conducted with enthusiasm by Hamlisch. Although Hamlisch's concerts sometimes depart from the printed program, it appeared he forgot to conduct the final piece before intermission — the concluding section of Gioachino Rossini's "William Tell" Overture that is best known as the theme of "The Lone Ranger" television show.

Riders in the Sky, which won a Grammy for its contribution to Disney's film "Toy Store 2" is a quartet of doublers — they sing and also play accordion, fiddle, guitar and bass. The orchestra's contributions were often superfluous, especially the unstylish introduction to "Rawhide."

The singers took solos and performed as a quartet. Although their musical values were often more rough than ready, their yodeling was fun. They had a few good jokes, but sometimes the cornpone was so thick it was just plain dumb, as were the inept rope tricks.

The audience joined in singing "Happy Trails" to conclude the concert.

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