Between the many observations of Doc Severinsen's recent 70th birthday and the antics of the unbridled jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant, there was so much going on in Friday's BPO Pops season opener that the concert itself tended to have a scattershot feeling.
Attired in a purple and blue ensemble that he called "Indigo Mood," Doc came out to conduct a bright, brisk and breezy performance of Ron Nelson's underrated "Savannah River Holiday."
He was presented a billboard-size birthday card signed by just about everyone who attended a BPO summer concert, but first there were two musical presents, a piece by Steve Reineke called "Ode to Doc" based on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," episodic, overdone and quite dismissible, and a much finer arrangement by trumpeter Tom Stevens of the Los Angeles Philharmonic of "My Funny Valentine," which was soulfully played on the fluegelhorn with quiet commentary by Charles Haupt's violin popping up throughout. Cushy, good.
Despite the fact that Henson-Conant's amplified harp was given unexpected and clever echo answers by Philharmonic harpist Suzanne Thomas throughout her first offering, "My Mother's Mexican Hat," the aftertaste was of excess.
Similarly, with "996" there was an impressive display of advanced techniques such as a cadenza on sliding stopped strings and playing little garnishes above the tuning pegs, but a feeling of fussiness fought with musical values.
Understand, Conant is extremely talented. She sings with extraordinary expressiveness and emotion, she writes songs that are interesting for both their melodic invention and frequently insightful, touching texts, and has an outstanding sense of rhythmic propulsion. And her harp technique is dazzling.
In fact, she has so much going for her that it's a pity she can't keep a rein on some of her stray impulses and let her major musical strengths run while curbing the showmanship urge, which so frequently flirts with overkill. Henson-Conant is also obviously a devotee of unbridled amplification. Granted, in a concert hall, the harp might need a little help, but in "Beck's Blues," which on her CD is a quite moving piece expressed in genuine, old-time blues chords, she was joined Friday night by Doc in a tasteful duet. But eventually, the harp lost its essential intimate quality to overamplification.
In the beautiful "Nightingale," a deeply touching lullaby reminiscence of childhood for voice and harp, she did not succumb to wattage mania and turned out her most memorable performance.
The soloist also has a flair for comical anecdotes, but usually strung them out too long, and perhaps a little too melodramatically, for their content.
The Doc-Deborah duo did produce another memorable moment in their voice-trumpet interchanges during the Tommy Newsom arrangement of "Embraceable You."
Of the solo harp pieces, the audience gave its most ringing approval to "Baroque Flamenco," which closed the program.
Buffalo Philharmonic Pops season opener
Doc Severinsen conducting, featuring harpist Deborah Henson-Conant.
Friday night in Kleinhans Music Hall; repeat tonight at 8.