Playing it cool
Pops concert shows that symphonies can rock
With his back to the audience and head and shoulders cast in stage lighting, Scott Seaton cued the piccolos, cellos and bassoons with an animated energy, waving his conductor’s baton like a wizard casting a spell.
Seaton is the musical director and conductor of North State Symphony. He is 35, looks younger, and exudes an off-the-cuff charm I didn’t expect going into the show—A Splash of Favorites—at Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium on Saturday (April 8). But it wasn’t a typical orchestral concert. The symphony collaborated with rock/jazz musicians from the local Uncle Dad’s Art Collective to present a pops concert that featured fresh arrangements of familiar tunes from Broadway musicals, TV shows, movies and popular music. Seaton was freewheeling throughout the evening, pulling rock-show tricks like inviting an audience member to take his place at the podium and closing the night with an encore.
All of which demonstrated that the symphony could actually be cool. Still, young people didn’t come out to listen, as was hoped:
“Now that the symphony is finally delving into the world of pops concerts, we have the programming flexibility to cater to a much more diverse audience,” Seaton said in a press release pumping the show. “If you think a symphony is only about Mozart or Beethoven, I am here to shatter all of your preconceived notions!”
The first half was all symphony, and at the beginning Seaton warned that everyone would leave with a head full of ear-worm melodies. For me, the most ensnaring one proved to be Henry Mancini’s “The Pink Panther Theme,” always evocative of a jewel thief tip- toeing around with a fat sack of loot. When it came time for John Philip Sousa’s march, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Seaton peered into the audience and asked if anyone wanted to conduct the symphony. An older gentleman volunteered, quipping that it “would be easier than using a computer.” After Seaton gave him quick instructions for how to start, the volunteer did a passable job of being a metronome.
Other early highlights included wonderfully rich arrangements for The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and The Beatles’ “Michelle.” Then came a collection of jingles from an era of TV that was before my time. Most of the melodies were maddeningly familiar, but I couldn’t place any of them except for the opening theme for NBC Nightly News. I was still wracking my brain when the first half wrapped up with a crowd-pleasing, thoroughly badass Star Wars medley.
After intermission, the symphony was joined by Uncle Dad’s players with serious musical chops—Josh Hegg on keyboards, Michael Bone on guitar, Ethan Swett on bass and Madison DeSantis on drums. Impressively, the mix was balanced enough to hear the orchestral and rock players separately, and that held up later when the ensemble was joined by a series of vocalists—starting with Bone’s extra-tender version of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
But the highlight for me was an adaptation of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World”—as covered by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews for the soundtrack to 2001’s Donnie Darko—featuring the hair-raising harmonies of Samantha Nickel and Katie Thornton.
The bill concluded with Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and during the latter number so many musicians were popping out of their chairs for solos, I had a reflexive urge to bop them back down with an arcade mallet. After an ovation, the players returned to the stage for an encore—an Afro-Cuban take on “I Wanna Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book.
Then the lights went up, revealing a surprising number of empty auditorium seats and a whole lot of white hair. It was a shame. A lot of people—young ones, mostly—missed out on something really cool.