MANASSAS, Va., February 20, 2015 – The ever-popular American Festival Pops Orchestra returned to the Hylton Center last weekend to present an old-fashioned jazz and pop music Valentine for lovers and fans both old and new. The problem was that—as has so often been the case during this Second Annual Polar Vortex Winter, Mother Nature suddenly decided not to cooperate with the concert.
Suddenly and without much warning, what was supposed to be a light dusting of snow turned out to be an outright blizzard west of the Beltway. The driving snow on I-66 at times approached whiteout conditions.
Orchestra founder and conductor Anthony Maiello confided a bit later to the audience that right up to the moment the concert was supposed to start, he’d been sweating it out backstage wondering if anyone would actually show up.
Astonishingly, most people did, struggling bravely against the elements, including the bitter, windy cold, to get to the Hylton Center, get warmed up a bit, and settle into their seats for the kind of old-time American pop concert families used to love what seems like generations ago. And they still do, if given a chance.
Hence, the surprisingly large audience for this concert on a night when most people generally decide to pack it in and stay home.
At its best, the American Festival Pops Orchestra sounds like a top-drawer Big Band—a VERY big band—the kind that had its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s. Loaded with top-drawer orchestral and jazz musicians, including a fine representation of former service band musicians, it wasn’t surprising that the orchestra’s 2015 celebration of romance and the romantics who love it was tilted heavily toward the jazzy side of the street.
Better yet were the upbeat arrangements—many of them by the orchestra’s go-to arranger guy, Bryan Kidd—that gave their old-favorite originals an extra dash of spice.
A major part of the evening’s musical festivities were the featured instrumental soloists, including flutist Julianna Nickel, violinist Peter Wilson, Jim Carroll on the alto sax, Dave Detwiler on trumpet, Dave Perkel on trombone, and Shawn Purcell on electric guitar.
And lest we forget: the orchestra’s irreplaceable drummer, Harold Summey, not only kept the entire evening on the beat. He got his chance for a spectacular drumset solo shot in Bryan Kidd’s energetic arrangement of Neal Hefti’s “Cute.”
Vocalists didn’t take a back seat either. The George Mason University Jazz Vocal Quartet—including Sarah Moyers, Huy Ngo, Darden Purcell and Christopher J. Redden-Liotta dropped in, contributing snappy vocals to “All of Me,” and a bit later, “A Beautiful Friendship.”
Quartet member Darden Purcell also returned as soloist in an intriguingly different Bryan Kidd arrangement of the old classic, “My Funny Valentine,” and in a hot, scat-singer arrangement of Bert Kaempfert’s and Milt Gabler’s “L.O.V.E.,” aided and abetted by instrumentalists Jim Carroll, Dave Detwiler and Dave Perkel.
This concert ran the gamut of musical emotions, but mostly focused on the bright side of life—uncannily appropriate with all that miserable weather outside. In addition to the previously noted numbers, songs and arrangements also included “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and arrangements of music from the movie classic “Gone With the Wind,” and the Andrew Lloyd Webber stage hit, “Phantom of the Opera.”
As has become this orchestra’s tradition, the concert closed with a medley of Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine and Coast Guard marches honoring all American servicemen—still a hugely popular feature; and with a final, sing-along performance of “America the Beautiful,” in which nearly everyone in the audience joined in.
It was a pleasantly warm and patriotic ending to what started out as a daunting and miserable winter’s Saturday, and we’re sure nearly everyone in attendance agreed.
Rating: *** 1/2 (Three and one-half stars.)