ANDREW MCKEEVER

Manchester Journal

MANCHESTER -- Now that’s entertainment.

Last Sunday’s first -- ever Gala Pops Extravaganza by the Manchester Music Festival held at the Arkell Pavilion at the Southern Vermont Arts Center was the sort of concert that could have been inserted into the summer schedules of some of the top venues around the area -- think Tanglewood or the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, for example -- and it would have had the crowd buzzing the same way afterwards.

If the organizers of the music festival were searching for the right formula to unlock how to bring out a capacity crowd on a delightful summer afternoon, the search is over. The only challenge they will have now is coming up with a worthy successor.

The show cleaved neatly into two overlapping parts. This was musical fare, heightened by some really clever and humorous theatricality by the festival’s artistic director, Ari Rudiakov, designed to appeal to a summer audience across multiple generations. It kicked off in high gear right off the bat with a series of themes from three classic James Bond movies; "For Your Eyes Only," "Live and Let Live," and "Goldfinger." Somehow I don’t remember those soundtracks ever sounding that good when sitting in the movie theatre 30 or 40 years ago waiting for 007 to go to work. I mean, this was lush, full orchestration provided by some 50 extremely good musicians jammed onto the stage at the Arkell, and they were spot on.


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That electric guitar solo by Christian French in the middle of it was a nifty touch also. Big, bold, confident and brassy -- even if you’re inclined to equate movie soundtracks with more than a dash of schmaltz it was hard not to get into the groove.

And the neat part of it was that those soundtracks, which continued on with a tribute to Henry Mancini ("Baby Elephant Walk," "Charade," "The Pink Panther," "Days of Wine and Roses," and Peter Gunn") were not only entertaining, but the music festival’s orchestra revealed that there was nothing second rate about the compositional skill that went into creating the pieces either, or the performance skill required to play it.

This rollicking set continued with the most varied line up of popular music disguised as sophisticated composition likely to heard around here again for awhile. Where else will you hear the theme from the video game "Angry Birds" commingled with a soaring medley of Duke Ellington classics ("Don’t Get Around Much Anymore," "Sophisticated Lady," and "It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing)," and the World War II era classic "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"? On the latter, the trumpet section of Wayne DuMaine, Neil Freebern and John Trombetta really rocked the house.

No review of this show would complete without noting the clever theatrical elements inserted into it by Rudiakov, the artistic director and conductor of the orchestra. Whether it was a take -- off on James Bond’s "shaken, not stirred," martini, playing a typewriter ("heavier than an iPad") during "The Typewriter," by Leroy Anderson, or donning a Darth Vaderesque cape and conducting with a light saber during the finale of the first part of the concert, "Star Wars Suite," those flourishes were an integral part of the whole package of entertainment that was nothing short of inspired.

It should have been hard to top that, but when you have five-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald waiting in the wings, that was possible. McDonald is one of those singers who voice is so strong and powerful, and who can hit those ultra high notes with such authority, that the sound of shattering glass would not be out of place. She performed with her trio of bass, piano and drums, along with much of the orchestra from the first part of the show. She is a mesmerizing presence. Starting with the Barbara Cook classic "When Did I Fall In Love," and continuing one through a 15-song set that included Broadway and show music hits such as "Moonshine," by Irving Berlin, as well as several from her new album, "Going Home," released last May, she showed why all the accolades that preceded her were well--deserved.

One that was particularly impressive for the sheer difficulty level was the fast-paced scat singing style of "I can’t stop talking about it," a test of memory and articulating the lyrics at a rapid fire speed.

McDonald likes to introduce each of her songs with a little background on what she enjoys about the song, when she began performing it, or why she has included it into her set.

She also showed off her theatrical and acting side as well during each song she performed, through subtle hand gestures and stylistic flourishes that complemented the world-class power of her singing and vocal phrasing. That’s why they call it musical theater.

She concluded her 90 minute-long set to an immediate standing ovation, which brought her back for her encore number, Judy Garland’s well-known "Over the Rainbow."

The entire concert ran about three hours and was a fundraiser for the music festival’s education programs.

Wow. Let’s do that again next year. A standard has been set, and this is no low bar. Do this often enough, and the hills will indeed be alive with more than the sound of music -- you can factor in the sound of many people desperate to get tickets and figuring out the best way to get to Manchester.