Many conductors, faced with programming an orchestral pops concert, will pick a theme, throw in some favorite tunes and top the whole thing off with a crowd-pulling soloist to call it good. Not Sarah Ioannides, whose first pops concert with the Tacoma Symphony last Sunday was a tour de force not just of Celtic-inspired music, carefully thought through for variety and scope, but soloists and composers brought together by Ioannides herself, who emceed the entire afternoon complete with a mock-Irish accent. It was an example of the kind of attention to detail the new director is bringing to Tacoma, and resulted in a mostly — but not always — enjoyable show.
“Songs from the Emerald Isle” featured not just one but three professional soloists on highly different instruments. Andrew Thomson pulled a wistful tone and flying fingers (but rough intonation) on the Uillean pipes and whistle, shining in tunes like “The Minstrel Boy” and sailing over the rock-beat-driven orchestral sea in “The Brendan Voyage.” Trent Kowalik, “Billy Elliott” star and veteran tapper at age 20, danced the solo in Kim Scharnberg’s jovial “Tour de Tap” concerto with lightning-fast feet and professional aplomb, duelling with the percussion section, adding whisper slides to some nice solos from oboe and violin, and finishing off the improvised cadenza with unbelievably fast foot-tremolo. Kowalik and Thomson returned for two encores that united the best of Irish dancing and folk music.
Vocalist Kaitlyn Lusk, however, was a different story. Her belting soprano was rich and full when she could use it (though with a predictable bloom on every long note), but her softer head-voice, despite a lovely purity, was uncontrolled and weak in upper registers. Chatting between songs, she also brought in a slightly bitter personal note which didn’t jive with the feel-good pops atmosphere.
Far more interesting — and justifiably emphasized by Ioannides in her introductions — were the composers and arrangers on the program, including Scharnberg himself, present in the audience. Along with Australian Sean O’Boyle, he delivered a series of arrangements that gave even the most overdone songs a new sound; the program also included rarely-heard but innovative Irish composers like Sean Davey and Bill Whelan. The orchestra itself played with skill, if not verve, balancing a slight messiness in the ensemble with excellent solos from flute (“Phil the Fluter’s Ball”), oboe (“She Moved through the Fair”) and marimba (“Tour de Tap.”)
The Tacoma Symphony’s next concert is “The Planets” on May 9. Tacomasymphony.org