BWW Review: Boston Pops Open With John Williams Celebration and Special Guest, Queen Latifah

BWW Review: Boston Pops Open With John Williams Celebration and Special Guest, Queen Latifah

Opening Night at the Pops

The Boston Pops Orchestra

Keith Lockhart, Conductor

Queen Latifah, Special Guest, with Adam Blackstone, music director and bass/Charles Haynes, drums/Raymond Angry, keyboards and piano/Dontae Winslow, trumpet and librarian/Clay Sears, guitar/Sharlotte Gibson and Nicole Hurst, background vocals

Wednesday - Thursday, May 10 - 11, 2017, 8 pm at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA;

Tickets: 888-266-1200 or 617-266-1492 or

The 2017 Boston Pops Spring season is a tribute to Boston Pops Conductor Laureate John Williams, the prolific film score composer who stood on the Symphony Hall podium from 1980 through 1993 and who celebrates his 85th birthday this year. "America's Orchestra" embarks on its 132nd year and Keith Lockhart's 22nd as Conductor with its usual eclectic array of music and artists scheduled for concerts through June 17th. Opening night featured film and recording star Queen Latifah in her Pops debut, along with her tight quintet of instrumentalists and pair of background vocalists.

Lockhart opened the evening with the regal "Coronation March" by Tchaikovsky, written in 1883 for Alexander III, followed by the decidedly Russian-feeling Rimsky-Korsakov piece, "Selections from Scheherazade." To escape from evoking the politics of the present day, the four themes in the John Williams Celebration portion of the program took us back to some thrilling moments. A giant screen was lowered over the back wall of the stage for the projection of an amazing mélange of clips from films scored by Williams as the Pops played "Superman March" (1978). The rousing fanfare was followed by "Main Title from The Towering Inferno" (1974) and "Theme from Sabrina" (1995), which featured an extraordinary violin solo by Concertmaster Tamara Smirnova. The sweeping "Flying Theme from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" brought back happy memories of the hopeful, uplifting film that welcomed a lovable alien into our midst.

After intermission, the stage, the spotlight, and the rafters belonged to Queen Latifah, a consummate performer if I have ever seen one. The multi-talented singer defies categorization, having begun her career as a rapper, but adding songwriter, actress, model, television producer, record producer, and talk show host to her resumé over the course of her 30-year career. Her work has earned her a Grammy Award, an Emmy Award, a Golden Globe award, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, two NAACP Image Awards, an Academy Award nomination and sales of over two million records, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

However, on this night she showed her singing chops on a variety of musical styles, backed by Lockhart and the Pops, as well as her own quintet - Adam Blackstone, Charles Haynes, Raymond Angry, Dontae Winslow, Clay Sears - and background vocalists, Sharlotte Gibson and Nicole Hurst. Peggy Lee's 1961 jazz tune, "I Love Being Here With You," opened the arms of the audience wide for Queen Latifah's easy, relaxed delivery. It felt like she was singing to us in her living room and we were all just hanging out together. Changing the mood, Winslow's virtuoso trumpet segued into the sultry "Georgia Rose" from the 2007 album "Trav'lin' Light," followed by some smokin' guitar playing by Sears on "Have Mercy on Me."

Loyal fans were rewarded with Latifah's ethereal rendition of Phoebe Snow's "Poetry Man" and her take on "California Dreamin'" from "The Dana Owens Album" (2004). After those two smoothies, she was determined to "get funky" with the Bill Withers classic, "The Same Love That Made Me Laugh," and her own powerful rap, "U.N.I.T.Y." Unfortunately, the lyrics to the latter, as well as much of the singer's between-song banter, were extremely difficult to hear from my vantage point (only a couple of rows from the stage) as the sound mix did not favor the voice mic. That being said, she was loud and clear on her closing number, the moving "I Know Where I've Been" that she sang as Motormouth Maybelle in the 2007 film version of Hairspray. It was a great exit song, with thunderous applause following her off the stage, even as she paused to shake a few hands reaching up to her from the standing audience.

Curiously, Queen Latifah did not return for a bow or an encore, which seemed to stun the fans (don't we always get an encore nowadays?) and took a lot of air out of the room. Although it is a crowd-pleaser, John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" and the obligatory unfurling of Old Glory fell a little flat after that. They'll do it all over again tonight at Symphony Hall, and the John Williams film/music tribute is not to be missed.

Photo credit: Robert Torres (Queen Latifah, Dontae Winslow, Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops)

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