My two-decade journalistic journey through the delights of countless varied performances I have enjoyed at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion began when I reviewed the Houston Grand Opera production of Bizet’s CARMEN at the venue back in 1998. In all these many years since, it would be difficult to find a night of pavilion entertainment more satisfying than that provided by the Houston Symphony Orchestra on a weather-perfect night in Texas last Thursday evening. The program, titled BOND & BEYOND, was a stunning musical tribute to the exciting film scores of the two dozen thrilling James Bond films that have been captivating moviegoers since the still-continuing series debuted in 1962. Sean Connery would become the iconic agent 007 as the first of six actors destined to play the role.
With good-humored pavilion favorite, Michael Krajewski conducting, there was an added glow for this memorable evening from special guest soloist, Debbie Gravitte. The very beautiful and Tony Award-winning actress and vocalist has a deep résumé that includes not only Broadway, but performances for television, film, nightclubs, symphonies and countless recordings. For this program, she displayed such vocal excellence, energy and vibrancy, she was the perfect pairing with Houston’s world class symphony orchestra.
With pulsing grandeur and explosive brass, the program began with the seductive, thrilling and very familiar, “James Bond Theme.” With its sweeping beauty, the theme of “From Russia With Love” beautifully displayed the rapturous skill of the orchestra’s string sections. The theme from, “You Only Live Twice,” was wonderfully exotic with its delicate Japanese folk elements. Then the night moved to an exciting new plane as Miss Gravitte, dressed in elegant black with glittering sequined trousers and gleaming bracelets to match, took to the stage with her beaming smile. With sparkling eyes and soaring voice, she radiated pure energy during a magnificent, “Diamonds Are Forever.” Next, under warm orange pavilion lighting, she delivered “Nobody Does It Better,” from The Spy Who Loved Me. Nobody could have done it better as she brought impressive joy and power to a performance that was alternately warm and embracing, then thrillingly savage. The audience roared its approval as she left the stage, and the orchestra then launched into the thunderous and galloping excitement of an arrangement of dual themes from “Casino Royale” & “Quantum of Solace,” that had no shortage of thrills from the French horns. Closing Part One of the concert was an exquisite orchestral performance of the rich variations and ever-rising crescendos for the theme from “Goldfinger.” It was the perfect time for Gravitte’s return as she brought fierce and seductive elegance to the song’s conclusion. It was clear she owned that stage, and she knew it as the audience cheered its way to Intermission.
While Part Two of the program continued this feast of action-packed film scores, it digressed for a time from the Bond focus as the orchestra opened with the rhythmic and pulsing excitement of the familiar theme from “Mission Impossible.” Next, with a gentle opening on harp, haunting French horns and delicate piano elements, there came a sampling of the music from the Austin Powers film series with the “Shagadelic Suite.” Miss Gravitte then returned dressed in a flowing gown of elegant floor-length charcoal chiffon, while sporting matching arm-length gloves. She delivered a sassy and sensual, “Sooner or Later,” from the film Dick Tracy, but it was compromised by audio imbalance that had her lovely vocal sometimes overwhelmed by the volume from the orchestra. Then the “Inspector Closeau Theme” from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, had an appropriately merry and bouncing quality inspired by the prancing lilt of the tubas. Better still was the playful fun of the original “Pink Panther Theme” that followed under soft pink pastel lighting, and featured a sensational (but uncredited) sax solo from the orchestra. Before the evening ended there would be yet another display of Gravitte’s vocal perfection and incredible range. She brought all her skill to a theatrical performance full of longing and wonder for the Adele hit of the title tune from “Skyfall.”
Finally, in a perfect recap, every lush element of this superb orchestra was on full display for an arrangement titled, “The Best of Bond.” It would conclude a perfect evening that was only marred by the announcement that after his many years of conducting the Houston Symphony at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, this would be maestro Krajewski’s final performance in that venue. For many of us, fond memories of this much-loved conductor will linger long for years to come.