Talk about big expectations. July 4 was the first evening that Bill Conti conducted for San Diego Symphony’s Star Spangled Pops. He’s responsible for the unforgettable score to “Rocky” and won an Oscar for his original music to “The Right Stuff.” While he is a beloved composer, I was wondering if he would be a good fit for the Summer Pops? After all, he is following the legacy of the late, great Marvin Hamlisch, who was the principal Pops conductor.
Fortunately, Conti quickly found his groove and his first evening as conductor was an earnest and very fun celebration of America and pop culture. The 71-year-old conductor led the Symphony effortlessly and always seemed comfortable consistently guiding them through an intermissionless evening of classic American tunes.
Not only did he showcase his musical talent, but he was also a very entertaining master of ceremonies. He spent several minutes in between each major number to tell jokes, shared stories about his career and was humble enough to give shout outs to many of the musicians on stage. Conti seemed relaxed and having a great time, which made the night that much more enjoyable.
The sound of the Symphony was spectacular with violinists, trumpeters, horn players and more all working together to perform with cinematic energy. They helped make classic tunes such as “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless the U.S.A” and a mashup of “This Land is Your Land-God Bless America” sound fresh. Though I’ve never gotten tired of these classic songs, the unique interpretations did give me even more appreciation for theses unforgettable anthems.
There was no shortage of strong vocals, primarily from the San Diego Master Chorale. While I enjoyed their collaborations to timeless songs such as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” they were at their best when singing a silver screen tribute. Hearing them sing snippets of music of everything from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to “Chariots of Fire” was consistently smile inducing.
There was not a lot of time for soloists, but two people did get the chance to stand out. Vonzell Solomon, who many know as the second runner-up in the 4th season of “American Idol” and sang a couple of years ago in the touring production of Burn the Floor at the Civic Theatre. She opened the show with a soulful interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and sang Whitney Huston’s “I Have Nothing” with intense emotion. Conti said to Solomon that her version rivaled Huston’s original. The audience seemed to agree with their enthusiastic response after she was done singing the ballad.
Petty Officer Jarrod Fowler sang “God Bless the U.S.A.” with passion and warmth. He was so good, that I am hoping he is given more opportunities to sing with the Symphony.
While the event never had a dull moment, there were a few nitpicks that I had. These issues represent my own mishigas and I doubt people will generally be affected by these ridiculously minor criticisms.
Since there was a spectacular fireworks display on Independence Day, Conti had to end the performance abruptly in order to accommodate their timing. There were a couple of numbers mentioned in the program that were completely dropped including “Music from Saturday Night Fever” and “Gonna Fly Now” from “Rocky.”
Also, Hamlisch was such a legendary composer and conductor, that I was disappointed that there was not a tribute to him. At the very least, I was hoping that Conti would acknowledge the maestro’s many legendary contributions to film and musical theatre.
Overall, the Star Spangled Pops is one of the best ways to celebrate the fourth of July weekend in San Diego. Be sure to buy tickets for either July 5 or 6 because this is a patriotic celebration that is hard to resist. It features nonstop good cheer in one of the most magnificent harbor venues.