It has been 30 years since Arthur Fiedler brought the Boston Pops to Bangor. Six thousand people jammed the city’s auditorium on April 23, 1978, to watch the iconic 83-year-old conduct the symphony a year before his death. There was magic in the air, including a key to the city and the music of Haydn, Mozart, Grieg and future Pops conductor John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme.
Saturday’s performance of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra in the same venue lacked the intimacy and classical tunes of the earlier performance, and the mature, casually dressed audience had shrunk to about half the 1978 size. But the kickoff gala of the Maine Center for the Arts’ 2008-2009 season was still a night to remember, punctuated by a tribute to Hollywood and Broadway, the genius of Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Miller and a crowd-pleasing tip of the cap to Red Sox Nation.
“What a treat to be a little farther into Maine than we usually come, such as Portland and Augusta,” commented conductor Keith Lockhart at the start of the two-hour concert. “I usually travel through Bangor to a little cabin I own on the coast of Maine [near Lubec]. Boy, am I homesick to keep on going there tonight!”
Lockhart turns 49 on Nov. 7, but from where I was sitting the trim, dark-haired maestro could have been 29. Dressed completely in black, he sprinted onto the stage, leapt off the podium to address the audience, and even performed an Irish step dance during an encore number. All that was missing were sparklers and the 1812 Overture that the orchestra, composed of musicians from the Boston Pops and other groups, plays each July Fourth at Beantown’s Hatch Shell.
An excellent sound system neutralized the auditorium’s dreaded acoustics, highlighting the lush string section in the opening selection, the main title from “My Fair Lady.” And the horns and woodwinds sounded equally crisp during “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone With the Wind,” and the themes from “Out of Africa,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “E.T.”
Broadway performer Lisa Vroman, a close friend of Lockhart’s, added luster to the “Trolley Song,” “I Could Have Danced All Night, “So in Love” and “Blue Skies.” Her soprano voice was right on pitch, and the orchestra didn’t drown her out. She returned for two other sets, singing Bernstein’s “A Little Bit in Love” from “Wonderful Town” and “I Can Cook Too” from “On the Town.”
Attired in an exquisite white and black sequined gown, Vroman was the best-dressed woman in the house. Her flirting with Lockhart made for good theater, but after repeated smooching (I counted three pecks) and a perch in his lap, I was ready to cry out, “On with the show!”
The show did go on, with post-intermission renditions of Miller’s “In the Mood,” “The Nearness of You,” sung by Vroman, and the jazzy “Runnin’ Wild.”
The audience roared its approval when Lockhart appeared in a No. 10 Red Sox jersey with his name on the back and after he recited “Casey at the Bat.” Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” rounded out the final set. “Stars and Stripes Forever” closed the show, complete with a mammoth flag that was unfurled at the right moment.
Wonderful timing, spirited performances and an affable maestro are keys to any Boston Pops performance. Saturday night’s show was no exception.