Review: BBC Orchestra at the Norton Center

The BBC Concert Orchestra performed at the Norton Center for the Arts on Nov. 11, 2010.

The BBC Concert Orchestra performed at the Norton Center for the Arts on Nov. 11, 2010.

DANVILLE – Going to see Keith Lockhart conduct a traditional classical music concert is like going to see Jim Carey in a drama*.

In the world of orchestral music, Lockhart has made his name at the top of the pops – the Boston Pops, to be precise. In that field, his credentials are unassailable. But (let’s all do a little professorial chin stroking here and speak through our noses) can he conduct “serious” music? In that question is the misguided presumption that pops is all little three-chord ditties, akin to the perception that any class clown can be a brilliant comic actor.

Keith Lockhart conducts the Boston Pops during a rehearsal at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade in Boston, Thursday, July 3, 2008. The annual Pops concert and fireworks display will be broadcast nationally on July Fourth. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Keith Lockhart conducts the Boston Pops in July 2008. AP Photo by Michael Dwyer.

Classical music has a better track record of letting rock stars write symphonies and concertos than letting established pops conductors pick up the baton to lead a symphony or concerto.

But Lockhart has been defying that prejudice for more than a decade, spending 11 years conducting the Utah Symphony Orchestra. He left that gig last year, and Thursday night he came to Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts with his new band, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and showed that he has some serious “serious music” chops.

This was a red-meat classical concert of Russian music giving us Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’ Symphony and Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite in the first half and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with soloist Ilya Yakushev after intermission.

Like any good actor, Lockhart made us forget his was a “pops guy” soon after the the downbeat.

After the incidental opener of Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev’s Overture on Russian Themes. Lockhart and the BBC dove into Prokofiev’s familiar short symphony, showing an immediate mastery and creativity with dynamics that gave the simple-sounding work brilliant color. And the concert built, next with the Firebird, ushered in with a subtle a bass introduction as you could hear and still hear it.

Movie music is a mainstay of the Pops repertoire, and Lockhart’s interpretation was cinematic, giving Stravinsky’s work a bold pop.

The Maestro built this program with a showman’s sensibility, saving the best for last with Yakushev’s passionate embrace of the Rach Second. Usually, it is preferable to be seated where you can watch a piano soloist’s hands. But it was a pleasure to be facing Yakushev and witnessing how absorbed he was, not only in the piano challenge the composer presented him, but also in the work the orchestra was doing behind him.

And this orchestra worked.

Though the Concert Orchestra is the smallest of the BBC’s ensembles, we are talking London here, where many fantastic musicians reside hoping to find employment in the plethora of ensembles based there. Lockhart sculpted the performance, but this was also an easily malleable group. Given the program, the winds and brass had many chances to shine and took advantage of them, particularly flutist Ilena Ruhemann, who was the star of the Classical Symphony.

While many of his predecessors were not allowed to move between the classical and pops world, with orchestras from the New York Philharmonic to our own Lexington Phil moving more readily between genres, the time is right for a superstar conductor like Lockhart who is comfortable in front of any orchestra.

Lockhart will be bringing his star back to the Bluegrass in October with his signature group, the Boston Pops. But when we see them in Rupp Arena Oct. 15, those of us who were in the Norton Center Thursday night will know what a complete musician he is.

* Jim Carey was brilliant in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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