REVIEW: Michigan Pops Orchestra Concert “Tick Tock, It’s Pops O’Clock”

7:00pm • Saturday, December 3, 2022 • Michigan Theater

This was my first experience as an audience-member for the Michigan Pops Orchestra. While I knew beforehand their reputation for wacky, fun performances, I was still surprised and delighted by the personality the musicians brought into their work. Not only did they play with excellence, but musicians were featured in short skits introducing the music, as well as in videos made to accompany the program. I’ve never been to an orchestra performance with so many musician-specific fan bases–Anthony Medei, co-tech director and viola player, seemed particularly popular in his comedic features as Milly Bagic, Doc Brown, and the evening’s gameshow host.

The orchestra took several opportunities during the evening to wish farewell to its current executive director, Katie Sesi, a graduating senior. One of my favorite moments during the performance was during the final few measures of Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours.” As she played, a little anticipatory smile appeared on Sesi’s face that widened into a full grin as the orchestra struck the final note of the song, a moment which I felt sweetly captured the dedication and love Pops musicians feel for the organization.

One of the pieces I heard Michigan Pops would interpret on Saturday night, and which impelled me to buy tickets, was “Time Warp” from Rocky Horror Picture Show. I am a big RHPS fan, and I was curious about how a glam rock piece could be arranged for orchestra. Coincidentally, during the performance a story was shared about how the executive board had to scour the internet for an orchestra score of the piece, finally locating one used by an obscure orchestra in Germany. Ultimately, although the musicians did an admirable job of bringing the piece to fruition, my final opinion is that orchestra-Time-Warp might have been better left in Germany. Rocky Horror ≠ orchestra music.

Overall, however, I immensely enjoyed the mix of songs chosen by the orchestra, which in another context might seem eclectic, but which was roped together by the theme of “Time” encapsulated in the performance. True to its role as a “Pops” orchestra, the songs were almost all familiar to me. I liked how the program illustrated the versatility of orchestra as a medium, which throughout the evening alternately took center-stage in pieces like Beethoven’s Fifth and shifted gracefully into the background as, for example, a screen showed a student-created speed-run of Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban. Additionally, I appreciated how many of the songs Pops performs are famous enough that everyone might have heard of them, but not everyone gets the chance to experience them live in concert. Michigan Pops offers an accessible opportunity for audiences to experience iconic music live and an entry point for everyone to get interested in orchestra.

REVIEW: Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra

Looks like they’re all giving us magical spells! Courtesy of UMS

The first thing that I could say is “Wow.” I was so pleased with their playing that I did not want the concert to end. Each and every note was performed with so many different colors, with tones that we often cannot find in American-based orchestras. I was especially drawn by the extremely wide range of dynamics that the orchestra was able to produce, and the conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s ability to convey all of his artistic visions with just his body language.

I was most inspired by their performance of Ravel’s Concerto for Piano in G Major (1931), with Hélène Grimaud on piano. Ms. Grimaud’s technique was beyond words — her fingers flew everywhere but knew exactly where to land, and produced the right kind of sounds for particular parts of the pieces. I absolutely love this concerto, and I was looking forward to hearing it live — soloist Hélène Grimaud and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra with Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin all exceeded my expectations, and captured so many characters that this piece contains. They left me loving this concerto even more.

I also loved watching Maestro’s conducting style. A little bit of background story here: I am part of the conductor search for the orchestra I play in right now, and thus I’ve observed so many conductors in the past month. Through this search, I’ve realized that I really love it when conductors focus more on conveying the artistry rather than showing a steady tempo all the time. Mr. Nézet-Séguin’s conducting had just that — hand gestures that got the most out of the orchestra. How I wished he could conduct our ensemble! (Haha, right.) I had a lot to learn from the musicians in the orchestra as well, especially those in the woodwind section, who moved with the music to invite other players to play with them. It was beautifully done.

Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra was visiting Ann Arbor as a part of their U.S. tour, with the other stops at North Ridge, San Diego, Costa Mesa, Palm Desert, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York. They performed the same program — Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye and Piano Concerto in G Major as well as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 — right before they left for the United States, in their hometown of Rotterdam, Netherlands. It is such an honor that an orchestra of this high caliber has visited Ann Arbor to share their art.