Yes, it really was a perfect Halloween party! And by the standards of my boyhood Halloweens in New York’s Hudson Valley, it was a perfect, clear, crisp and moonlit autumn evening for this very special musical celebration titled “Hocus Pocus Pops.” The free lawn seating, sponsored by H.E.B. supermarkets, had encouraged the attendance of the very large crowd that was on hand at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. And the fun began even before conductor Mischa Santora raised his baton. The audience had been invited to wear costumes and come early to enjoy a variety of fun-filled family activities that included pumpkin decorating, bean bag toss, duck pool, ghost making, Halloween tattoos, spider rings and other treats. But the greatest treat of all would be the music of the wonderful Houston Symphony Pops Orchestra.
As the lights dimmed there were playful screams and shrieks from the many happy young goblins in the audience. The loudest of these, I am sure, was a costumed leopard seated directly behind me with a voice that would shatter glass. Then the spooky program got under way with the thundering pulsations of the grand and thrilling “Imperial March” from John William’s score for “The Empire Strikes Back.” That was followed by the lilting seduction of Camille Saint-Saëns’ ghostly “Danse Macabre.” The animated conducting of Mr. Santora reminded me of the high-energy enthusiasm of Keith Lockhart when he conducts the Boston Pops. Amid the gypsy flair of the violins and the building excitement of the piece, the children in the audience could visualize the dancing skeletons suggested by the work. There was still more fun as wide screen projections displayed close-ups of the many costumed members of the orchestra. Picture Bug Bunny proudly playing the triangle and you will get the idea. But Bugs had plenty of help from orchestra members that included pirates, Indians, wizards, and even Elvis and Darth Vader.
A musical highlight of the evening was a performance of Reineke’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with a very spooky narration from Ira J. Black. Well known for his pre-performance lectures on everything from symphony to ballet, and opera to films, Mr. Black is a member of HCCS-Northwest College where he teaches speech and theater. On this occasion he was the perfect choice to accompany the orchestra in telling the eerie story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. Black’s fine voice and thrilling delivery combined with Reineke’s lushly rich score to beautifully capture the escalating excitement of this popular Washington Irving tale.
Next, musically visualizing the dark spirits frolicking in the night, we had the frightening and mysterious “Night on Bald Mountain” of Mussorgsky/Rimsky-Korsakov. The explosive music rolled over the audience in fearsome waves of rumbling sound. Only the final tolling of the church bell could cause the spooks to retreat and restore calm with this composition’s delicate conclusion.
Yet another highlight of the night was Gounod’s “Funeral March of the Marionette.” Those who remember the old Alfred Hitchcock television series would recognize the familiar theme in this suspenseful work. Best of all, costumed children in the audience were invited to have a Halloween parade across the stage as the orchestra played. There were the cutest little angels, super heroes, bugs, racecar drivers, spacemen, jesters, dinosaurs, firemen, and other characters that one could imagine.
Finally this superb orchestra closed with the exciting “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” by Dukas. A little girl in the row behind me recognized it immediately (from the Disney film, “Fantasia”), proudly declaring, “I know this. I saw it at Aunt Abbey’s house!” Then the soft whisper of the work’s opening passages evolved into a lashing musical thrill ride suitable for Disneyland. Perhaps it was the thrilling crescendos that loosened a large clump of insulation that suddenly drifted down from the ceiling and landed in front of the audience. “What was that?” asked the young girl? “That was the Phantom of the Symphony,” replied her Dad. Perhaps it was!
(The Courier 11.5.06)