Seth MacFarlane ready to swing with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood
LENOX — If Seth MacFarlane, the multi-talented actor, writer, director, producer and filmmaker. is not as well-known to fans as a respected interpreter of the Great American Songbook, he aims to change that through guest performances with the Boston Pops, the Nashville Symphony and other orchestras.
MacFarlane, 42, a native of Kent, Conn., forged his career in adult, politically outrageous animation and comedy before moving on to live-action TV and films.
He created the "Family Guy" series in 1999, entering its 15th season on FOX this fall, and is credited as co-creator of "American Dad!" in 2005 (still on TBS) and "The Cleveland Show" in 2009. His next TV project is a sci-fi comedy-drama for FOX set 300 years in the future. On the big screen, MacFarlane wrote and directed the films "Ted" and its sequel as well as "A Million Ways to Die in the West."
These days, concerts in prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, Boston's Symphony Hall and London's Royal Albert Hall, and this Sunday at Tanglewood with the Boston Pops, seem close to his heart as he channels the vocalism, artistry and style of his musical idol, Frank Sinatra, though stopping short of outright imitation.
Backstage at Tanglewood last weekend, Keith Lockhart, who will conduct the Pops at the Sunday matinee, recalled that MacFarlane first approached him directly about performing with "America's Orchestra," as the Pops bills itself.
"He reached out to us two or three years ago, I got a cold call on my phone from him, which I thought was kind of cool," said Lockhart.
But schedules didn't mesh until this past May, when MacFarlane opened the Pops' spring season in Boston with a sold-out, well-received performance.
"A lot of people who come out to see him expect the kind of naughty, politically incorrect guy who's the writing genius behind 'Family Guy,' 'American Dad!,' the actor in 'Ted" and things like that," Lockhart observed.
"One very interesting thing now that he has fame established is that he's a great singer with a wonderful baritone voice, very much a '50s Sinatra, Dean Martin kind of voice," he pointed out. "He's a huge fan of the American Songbook from that period of time."
Lockhart described MacFarlane's reception by concert audiences as "this wonderful combination of Pops fans who love these big, lush Nelson Riddle arrangements and a lot of 'Family Guy' fans. He's very funny in between, but when he sings the songs, he sings them straight, like Sinatra would have sung them."
Although MacFarlane was not available for an interview, he has talked of his admiration for John Williams and his first experiences hearing him conduct the Boston Pops at Tanglewood during the film composer's 1980-93 tenure as principal conductor of the Pops and successor to Arthur Fiedler.
"I loved film music, I loved orchestras, and as a child I just remember that that was such an exciting thing, to hear all that film music played live with the orchestra," MacFarlane told the Boston Globe in May. "And Tanglewood is where I saw the Boston Pops perform the first time I'd ever seen anything like that, and to have that experience with a 100-piece orchestra is exciting."
For Lockhart, MacFarlane's guest appearance at the Pops Opening Night gala on May 6 yielded "a great show, one of our best openings in terms of audience response and instantaneous sellout, and it'll be a great Sunday afternoon program here."
MacFarlane's set list is expected to include the classic "'Ol Man River" from the groundbreaking 1927 Kern-Hammerstein Broadway classic "Show Boat," as well as "Autumn in New York" and other Broadway, jazz and pop standards from his third and most recent studio album, "No One Ever Tells You," recorded with a 65-piece orchestra and nominated for a Grammy as Best Traditional Pop Album.
Lockhart emphasized that MacFarlane doesn't attempt to imitate Sinatra but sings the material "straight up," backed by the lush Nelson Riddle orchestrations that produced not only some of Sinatra's most enduring albums and singles but also memorable performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis, Rosemary Clooney and Linda Ronstadt.
After his singing debut in 2009 at the BBC Proms in London, MacFarlane explained: "I love and am fascinated by exciting orchestration — what you can do with a band that size — and I think in many ways it's a lost art."
Clearly relishing the chance to work with Lockhart, he describes the result as "just a sound that you don't get to experience. And obviously, the Boston Pops does exactly this kind of thing like gangbusters. For an orchestra that size to be able to swing like that is pretty extraordinary, but they know what they're doing. They're just phenomenal."
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