It was obvious from the moment maestro Michael Gesme started to conduct with a bright red Star Wars light saber (then switched to a one emitting white light) that the audience at Central Oregon Symphony’s season finale was in for a fun evening. And they were as the symphony launched into, what else, a Star Wars medley complete with one female violinist with a neatly coiffed Princess Leia hairdo.
Like so many symphonic pops concerts these days, compositions by “Star Wars” composer John Williams dominated the performance. Other William’s opuses on the first half of the program were the “Flying Theme from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Superman March.”
Between the “Star Wars” and “Superman,” the symphony offered a lush version of Aaron Copland’s tone poem, “Our Town.” Seldom played in comparison to his “Rodeo” and “Appalachian Spring,” “Our Town” is moody and haunting, the perfect partner musically to the evergreen Thornton Wilder play of the same name.
Deftly changing the mood, the Symphony upped the tempo feel swinging into the Duke Ellington/Irving Mills classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.” Some ten bars into the song enter multi-talented local songwriter, pianist and music teacher and vocalist Michelle Van Handel.
Decked out in a long black evening dress, Van Handel’s was not only stylish but she did exactly what Ellington and Mills asked for – she swung.
Showing off her ability to deliver a ballad, Van Handle next turned “You and The Night and The Music” into an aching torch song.
Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia,” arguably the greatest state-centric song ever written, rounded out the vocal portion before a jump back to before “E.T.” and “superman.”
For the second part of the program, was Williams’ “Cowboy Overture,” a piece that has overtones of Copland and Charles Ives, to begin with followed by Van Handel (now in a sparkly cocktail dress) joining the symphony for a rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and original called “In My Dream” she wrote with local bassist Michael Scott and Neal Hefti’s bluesy “Splanky” which was a Count Basie Band standard for decades.
Last on the program was George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” It was beautifully played and if one closed their eyes, they could easily envision Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing on a Paris street.
Perhaps it was the anticipation of the end of the season, perhaps it was the culmination of a season of hard work, whatever it was, on Monday night the Central Oregon Symphony sounded as good as any orchestra of any size anywhere.