New York Pops
Credit: Richard Termine

The New York Pops kicked off a sparkling 2020 Carnegie Hall night with a reprise of its program Find Your Dream: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, an evening featuring the notable music of the famous songwriting team. During the short period of their collaboration from 1943 to 1959, the duo’s ground-breaking shows and film versions garnered thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, and two Grammy Awards (information courtesy of Wikipedia).

Special guest artists included Laura Michele Kelly, Olivier Award-winning actress known for playing the title role in the world-premiere staged production of Disney’s Mary Poppins, in addition to a supercalifragilistic plethora of other roles. Max Von Essen, Tony Award-nominated for portraying Henri in Broadway’s An American in Paris, provided the male complement for Ms. Kelly. Judith Clurman’s Essential Voices USA, one of New York’s preeminent choral ensembles, also joined as a guest chorus, providing powerful vocal bandwidth in all the right places.

The evening began as charismatic Music Director and Conductor Steven Reineke sprinted onto the pink-hued stage with his usual enthusiastic gusto, receiving cheers from the houseful of loyal fans. He led the orchestra in a rousing overture from Oklahoma! The overture segued into the first vocal performance of the evening, as Von Essen confidently took the stage in a black velvet jacket, bow tie and patent leather shoes, winning the crowd over with his brilliant smile and warm baritone, singing “Oh,What a Beautiful Mornin’”, making eye contact and singing to the audience, not at them.

The orchestra presented the famous “Carousel Waltz” from Carousel, which began in uncertain, discordant sounds, then swelled to glorious heights in an exciting finish.

Von Essen sang his absolute best with an admirable stab at Carousel’s “Soliloquy”. The song, without its disturbing character and context, just doesn’t fare well in a concert setting and in the hands and voice of such a fine gentleman. The same could be said for his later rendition of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, which was just too classy for this angry, bitter song.

With the combined voices of Kelly, Von Essen and Essential Voices USA, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” had all the makings of a magnificent number. However, Kelly mixed vocal modes in the melody, alternating between her bright, Broadway sound and covered operatic tones, ultimately looking and sounding uncomfortable, shortchanging the song’s big finish.

Kelly fared best in more engaging numbers which allowed her acting and personality to augment her excellent voice. South Pacific’s “A Wonderful Guy”, Allegro’s “The Gentleman is a Dope” and Flower Drum Song’s “I Enjoy Being a Girl” received wonderful treatment from her combined acting and vocal talents. She gave rich depth to an earnest and bittersweet “Everbody’s Got a Home but Me” from Pipe Dream, and after a brilliant prelude by the New York Pops, whose violin tremolos and buttery brass notes seemed to rise from mountain springs themselves, Kelly soared through “The Sound of Music” with vibrant, resonant perfection.

Von Essen’s easy demeanor and silken voice fared well in “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. His gushingly grateful patter at appearing in Carnegie Hall for the first time endeared him to the audience, as did his gorgeous rendition of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music.

Together Von Essen and Kelly brought personability and chemistry to their duets; a conversational “People Will Say We’re in Love”, where the pair actively listened and playfully interacted with each other, produced smiles all around, and the couple mesmerized with “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I and a well done “No Other Love” from Me and Juliet”.

Throughout the entire performance, Reineke demonstrated his infectious musicianship and fine listening, watching his guest artists’ carefully for their cues during rubato moments, and leading the orchestra’s entrances with his full-bodied, committed direction.

“Climb Every Mountain” with Kelly, Von Essen and Essential Voices USA, proved a wonderfully dazzling finish to the evening’s program.

Essential Voices USA’s spirited features “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King and I were indeed essential to the enjoyment of the evening, as was their powerful contribution to “Climb Every Mountain” and the special encore “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.

It was a grand night for singing!

For more information about heartily recommended future performances of The New York Pops, visit here: http://nypops.org/.