Tuesday July 10, 2012

LENOX -- For anyone who doubts that Broadway diva Bernadette Peters remains a force of nature with a carefully-preserved voice that still can soar over 100 or so Boston Pops musicians, her glittery appearance at Tanglewood on Sunday afternoon supplied all the proof needed.

Granted, some of the bloom may be off the rose after five decades in show business; she made her professional stage debut in 1958. But she remains the leading singing actress of her generation and at 64, she cut a svelte, sultry figure in her beaded gown as she delivered a seven-song set demonstrating, among other virtues, her considerable prowess as the definitive interpreter of the canonical Stephen Sondheim songbook.

With full-blooded arrangements, augmented by her three-member band (including an original Mouseketeer, Cubby O'Brien, on drums), Peters plumbed the emotional depths of Sondheim classics such as "No One is Alone" from "Into the Woods," "Johanna" from "Sweeney Todd" and "In Buddy's Eyes" as well as "Losing My Mind" from "Follies." No surprise that the show-stopper was her passionate, nearly over-the-top "Being Alive" from "Company."

There's intense commitment and feeling in Peter's interpretations. Her close identification with Sondheim's world of despair, regret, longing and bittersweet acceptance of that which must be, forges a close connection with listeners. Pops conductor Keith Lockhart was in total collaborative sync with Peters' carefully-choreographed stagings and vocally shrewd choices.


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She even ventured into the crowd to tease an appreciative audience member during her tour-de-force romp through "There is Nothing Like a Dame" from "South Pacific."

A sensitive interpreter of Rodgers and Hammerstein's still-resonant scores, she delivered an ultra-romantic "Some Enchanted Evening" from the same show -- Peters is fond of performing classics written for men as well as for female characters she has not portrayed in the theater.

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In what she described as a new addition to her repertoire, Peters sizzled through an "R"-rated version of "Fever" that made Peggy Lee's mid-'50s version seem almost staid by comparison.

Her sweetly touching encore was the lullaby "Kramer's Song," written by Peters for her children's album and CD "Broadway Barks," to benefit the animal shelters dear to her heart (Kramer is her mixed-breed dog).

Sunday's well-attended Pops concert reflected Lockhart's uncanny flair for creative programming. Still appearing eternally youthful in his 18th year with the orchestra, he packaged a "Bright Lights, Big City" first half (borrowing the title from Jay McInerney's best-selling novel) that ranged from John Williams (his "Liberty Fanfare") to iconic film composer Bernard Hermann, a sampling of Harry Warren's 1980 score for the Broadway hit "42nd Street" and Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington's symphonic ode to his adopted neighborhood, "Harlem."

With more than 1,400 Pops events under his belt (Lockhart keeps a running tally on his office wall at Boston's Symphony Hall), he never cruises on automatic pilot, nor does the orchestra (in this case, the BSO minus the first-desk principals). Introducing each selection with often-humorous and always-insightful anecdotes, Lockhart conducted with his typical polish and panache and the orchestra responded accordingly.

Reflecting his particular affinity for music of the stage and screen, Lockhart led the "Night Piece for Orchestra" assembled from Hermann's final score, composed for Martin Scorsese's 1975 "Taxi Driver" with the combination of brooding intensity and a sense of menace that characterizes the film. Guest performer Michael Monaghan performed the bluesy alto-sax solos with flair and distinction.

Ellington's "Harlem" -- commissioned by Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony Orchestra but conducted by the composer in 1951 for an outdoors benefit concert -- captured the essence of the surface glitz and glamor of the city's African-American neighborhood, as well as the grit of its poverty and violence.

The Pops transformed itself, chameleon-like, into a super-sized jazz band, delivering all the flair and pizazz the flavorful score demands. The orchestra's percussion, brass and wind sections warranted special credit.

With three more concerts coming up at Tanglewood later this summer, the Pops and Lockhart continue to innovate while honoring the formidable traditions established sand carried on by his two predecessors, Arthur Fiedler and John Williams. The wide-ranging musical mosaic represented during the Boston Symphony's summer festival is all the richer for it.