Leave it to the wonderful Houston Symphony to figure out a way to relieve us all of the seemingly endless Presidential election campaigns. With all due respect to a past American president, a possible future vice-president, and the delegates at a certain Denver political convention, I would not have traded places with any of them during my opportunity to see last week’s “Zoot Suit Symphony” tribute to the big band era, performed at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
The fun began out on the Pavilion plaza with free Haggan Daaz ice cream for all comers (sponsored by Fidelity Investments), and some dazzling swing dance demonstrations from a talented and energetic group of teens representing the Houston Swing Dance Society ( www.HSDS.org). When they danced to “Rhythm is Our Business,” no one could argue the point.
Also on the plaza was an “Instrument Petting Zoo,” where youngsters were invited to handle all kinds of musical instruments, while donors could turn over unused instruments to benefit future young musicians.
Then it was on to the main event under the direction of that most cheerful of all maestros, conductor Michael Krajewski. Looking as full of fun as ever as he ascended the podium, Krajewski surprised me by not showing up in a “Zoot Suit” himself. But I immediately forgave him when I saw his coolly crisp, formal white dinner jacket, and started thinking I would like to own one myself. Then it was off to a memorable tour of the Big Band era that would tip its hat to many of America’s greatest big band leaders and composers.
Opening with a rousing march tempo, the first selection was W.C. Handy’s jazz classic, the “St. Louis Blues,” with the symphony performing on all burners with sizzling percussion, brass, and strings, while soft pastel lights embraced the stage. Adding to the fun throughout the evening were the two large projection screens that would zoom in on the various soloists, enabling the audience to have a closer look at these skilled musicians.
Next came a powerhouse rendition of the Glenn Miller favorite, “American Patrol.” This number was complemented by the arrival of the “Hep Cats” swing dancers on a large dance floor set up just below the stage. These lively young dancers really put the “swing” in swing dancing!
A medley paying delicious tribute to “the Duke,” (and I don’t mean John Wayne) was aptly titled, “The Essential Ellington.” It wove a musical tapestry that included such treats as a lovely “Lush Life,” a “Perdido” full of resounding brass accents, a jazzy “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and a bouncing “Satin Doll,” that was pure satin in more ways than one, with particularly rich work from the strings.
When the orchestra moved on to a wonderful Count Basie version of “April in Paris,” I found myself thinking, “Thank God we still have this music to break up the noisy din that too often comprises the popular music of our day.”
Krajewski showed his skill as a pianist during another Count Basie favorite, “One O’clock Jump.” The conductor played the opening phrases on the grand piano and sounded grand himself. During that number the Hep Cats returned for another smooth set on the dance floor that was highlighted by some terrific ensemble choreography. Then the conductor invited the audience to take to the dance floor during what would be as elegant and smooth a performance of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” as one could ever hope for. Appreciative fans were dancing on the hillside, in the aisles and crowding that dance floor.
Relief came in the form of a delicious performance of Tommy Dorsey’s, “Getting Sentimental Over You,” with dazzling work from the orchestra’s trombonists, and soft blue lights bathing the audience. Then the crowd continued to enjoy the dance floor during the Harry James theme, “You Made Me Love You,” as the orchestra sections took skillful turns with that seductive melody.
Additional Glenn Miller treats included “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” the sensational saxophone solos of “String of Pearls,” and an exquisite “Moonlight Serenade,” that brought a laugh when Krajewski invited the audience to “… snuggle up if you are here with that special someone, or even if it’s just your husband.”
Then the thunderous finale of Benny Goodman’s, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” gave several orchestra percussionists a chance to pay homage to the brilliance of drummer, Gene Krupa. The resulting standing ovation was rewarded with a rockin’ rendition of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” What a party!
Readers may also want to note these upcoming Pavilion events: Sept. 19th – Houston Symphony’s “Music of Mozart,” Oct. 2nd – Houston Ballet’s “Classics on Pointe,” and Oct. 24th – Houston Symphony’s “Hocus Pocus Pops.” For tickets and information call 281-363-3300 or visit the pavilion website at www.woodlandscenter.org.