They say “seeing is believing,” but for those lucky enough to attend Opening Night of this weekend’s Houston Symphony Pops concert, “I Love a Piano,” the astonishing performance of pop vocalist & pianist, Tony DeSare, seemed to somehow defy belief. I came somewhat prepared having had the privilege of reviewing the handsome young artist’s stellar performance during the orchestra’s “Sinatra Centennial” concert here just one year ago ( See SinatraCentennial ). Now he returns to literally explode across the keys in a mesmerizing celebration of the instrument he’s been passionately drawn to since early childhood.
In this, his final season leading the Houston Pops, conductor, Michael Krajewski, arrived onstage to much fanfare as the orchestra played the exciting opening strains from the classic theme of the motion picture, “ROCKY.” He then led his superb orchestra in Mr. DeSare’s arrangement of the “Evolution of Piano Pop Overture,” describing the comprehensive piece as, “a musical piano history from the 1730’s to the present in ten minutes.” It was all that and more, as its familiar musical tidbits ran the gamut from “Chopsticks” and Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” to DeSare’s rich piano sampling of countless musical moments from tunes like “The Entertainer,” “I Got Rhythm,” “As Time Goes By,” “Autumn Leaves,” Great Balls of Fire,” “Lady Madonna,” “Lean on Me,” and dozens more.
Then DeSare stepped forward to cheerfully address the audience with the playful and easy confidence of the concert pro he has become. Tall and slender, his boyish good looks might remind one of the young Ricky Nelson. Quickly back at the piano, his mellow voice seemed one with the piano as he delivered a thrilling rendition of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” The focus then shifted to the orchestra for the serenity of its smoothly intoxicating performance of Debussy’s lovely, “Clair de lune.” DeSare returned to the stage to perform his original composition, “New Orleans Tango.” With its immediate rhythmic enchantment, the richly romantic piano piece had impressively echoing support from the orchestra. It was a highlight of the program.
DeSare travels with his own trio that includes Ed Decker on guitar, Steve Doyle on bass, and Michael Klopp on drums. With his 7-string electric guitar, Decker joined the star to accompany Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman.” DeSare’s vocal was like a warm and intimate conversation, but the guitar settings seemed to compete unnecessarily here. Closing the first part of the program, DeSare brought solid keyboard attack, fierce focus, and more impressive skill to a smiling performance of the Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition, “Philadelphia Freedom.”
Following the intermission there was a haunting and dreamlike, “Imagine,” with DeSare’s arrangement of that John Lennon classic. Then his playful performance of Irving Berlin’s, “I Love a Piano,” had all the requisite joy and lighthearted fun, in addition to a commanding and high-speed finale. DeSare then performed the quiet reflection of his original song, “How Will I Say I Love You?” With its lovely orchestrations, that number reportedly got favorable notice from none other than Sir Paul McCartney when he was in DeSare’s audience at the chic supper club of New York’s Carlyle hotel. Returning to the music of Billy Joel, DeSare’s piano arrangements for “Root Beer Rag,” brought out all the merriment and colorful hoedown-flavors of the work’s bouncing rhythms. I found myself wondering if the Houston Ballet couldn’t develop a pleasing cakewalk suite based on this piece.
The pièce de résistance for the evening would be DeSare’s dazzling performance of Gershwin’s pioneering classic, “Rhapsody in Blue.” He explained his boyhood fascination with that challenge from the time his father brought home a CD of the piece. Richly complemented by our magnificent Houston Symphony Pops Orchestra, this concert makes very clear that DeSare has mastered the endless complexities and varied moods of the work with his technical brilliance, focused energy, crisp attack, and the bounding, rapid-fire accuracy of his fluid runs up and down the keyboard. The star’s charming mother had come all the way from New York to see her son’s Houston triumph. I had the pleasure of chatting with her after the concert. I think she summed it up best: “Tony’s talent is a gift from God!”