As I can’t attend the next “classical” Portland Symphony Concert I decided to attend the “Pops” Concert which took place at Merrill Auditorium on the 4th of November. The theme of the program was “The Sinatra Swing” which featured conductor Christopher J. Lees and vocalist Michael Andrew.

Frank Sinatra was a singer who rose to fame in the early 1940’s. Actually he was as much a personality as a singer with teenagers swooning at the sight of him. He soon appeared in many hit musicals, (e.g. “On The Town”) and became a serious actor in a career that spanned some 60 years.

The PSO concert featured Sinatra and by extension the music of composers he popularized. Thus the program began with an extended medley of Irving Berlin songs that included “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better),” “Blue Skies” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” The arrangement was adroit, sophisticated and musically complex, one that conductor Lees directed with professional skill. This was followed by “Dances from On The Town” (by Leonard Bernstein.)

At this point, singer Michael Andrew entered the picture. Mr. Andrew gained fame as the headline singer and bandleader at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center in New York City. He also starred in the musical version of “The Nutty Professor” written by Marvin Hamlisch and Rupert Holmes. He received “rave” reviews for this role and an accolade from Jerry Lewis who described him as “one of the best talents to come down the pike in 50 years.” From my point of view that may be stretching things although I would allow that he surely is talented. His voice reminded me more of Steve Lawrence than “Old Blue Eyes” (a contemporary description of Sinatra.) Before intermission Andrew sang three songs popularized by friends of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bobby Darin.

Lees brought with him a group of talented musicians who were not listed in the program. These included a pianist, string bass, trumpet, saxophone and trombonist.

All the songs performed after intermission were essentially very skillful arrangements that did not really require a symphony orchestra. For example, the six string basses were on stage the entire second half but rarely played, and when they did for not more than a few notes at one time. Most of the arrangements were Nelson Riddle but as in the first half of the concert all the songs were simply announced on the stage. After intermission songs included: “I’ve Got the World On a String,” “I Get No Kick from Champagne,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and four versions of “In The Still of the Night.” No retrospective of Sinatra’s numerous hit songs would be complete without a rendition of  “It’s Up to You, New York, New York.”

Andrew certainly studied Sinatra’s style of singing and his mannerisms as well and his performances showed that he knew his subject very well. For those who never heard Frank Sinatra sing, there was always something very special in the way he sang something. His phrasing was exceptional and the manner he pronounced the words was clear and insightful. Yes, he did have some mannerisms, e.g. he sang “In the Stilllll Luv the nahht.”

Among Sinatra’s many contemporaries were Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Dean Martin, and among ladies there were Dinah Shore, Peggy Lee, and Lena Horne. What these and many others had in common was the fact that they all sang in tune, showed respect for the composer’s wishes, and one could readily understand every syllable of every word. The songs they sang and recorded are for the most part now regarded as “standard” songs, part of American cultural heritage. They may not have had operatic voices but the voices they did have were pleasant and well placed. I may be forgiven if I close with “That was then.”

Unlike the classical series, this particular concert was not recorded for later broadcast on Maine Public Radio. The next concert in the classical series will take place on the 13th and will feature pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane and the full Portland Symphony Orchestra. The string basses should play lots more then.

— Dr. Morton Gold is a conductor/composer, retired educator and an arts reviewer for the Journal Tribune.

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