Aaron Copland co-billed with Calloway? Morton Gould on the same program as "Minnie the Moocher"? Erich Kunzel conducting for Cab? What's going on here?
What went on during the startling series of non sequiturs Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl was the fifth annual Great American Concert, as odd a mixture of quasi-classical, pablum pop and pseudo-jazz as ever came down the musical pike. "Went up the pike" might be a better way to put it, since the evening ended with a spectacular display of fireworks (accompanied by three Sousa marches) that enabled its creator, the master pyrotechnician Gene Evans, to steal the honors from everyone.
In these days when we read so much about ends that allegedly justify means, the point was handily demonstrated: Whatever its artistic shortfall, the event drew a capacity crowd of 17,763.
The patriotic theme, expressed in several of the works performed, shared credit with the "Hi-De-Ho" veteran for its success; however, not much happened until Sportin' Life himself hit the stage after intermission, dazzling from his white hair down to the white tails and white shoes.
Although he will be 80 years old on Christmas day, neither age nor nostalgia could alone have been responsible for the ovation Calloway drew. It could have been the grace of his dancing--well, perhaps it's not quite dancing, but his movements were obviously irresistible. Of course, there is the unique sound of his voice--well, maybe the long high notes fell a bit short of the mark, but who else can scat with such titillating, semi-Hebraic charm? And who could balk at a "Porgy and Bess" medley, or "St. James' Infirmary" or "Stormy Weather"? At this point in his career, resistance to Calloway is all but un-American, and this was a very American evening.
It began blandly with Kunzel conducting the Philharmonic in Morton Gould's variations on "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and Copland's variations on a Shaker tune from the ballet "Appalachian Spring" paired with "John Henry," billed as a "Railroad Ballad."
Boyde Hood, a cornetist from the orchestra's brass section, offered a correct but lifeless reading of Offenbach's "American Eagle Waltz," composed in 1876 and recently rediscovered. The selection from Richard Rodgers' scores for the film and TV documentary series "Victory at Sea" provided the orchestra with a much more attractive vehicle to which they devoted appropriate effort.
The program then went downhill fast with the triple trivia of a march medley. There is nothing more piquant (or is it poignant?) than a symphony orchestra trying to play jazz, as was made clear when the medley ended with "South Rampart Street Parade." (You were expecting maybe John Coltrane's "Giant Steps"?)
For those who came prepared simply to have a good time--whether for a picnic or "Porgy and Bess" or the pyrotechnics--it was, for the most part (and sweeping aside musical nit-picking), a fun evening. Let's face it, that's all that was intended.