Far from the smoothest production imaginable, and a little too reminiscent of a typical, lightweight PBS fundraiser, the "Star-Spangled Spectacular" concert Saturday night at Pier Six nonetheless delivered a decent level of entertainment for a sizable, enthusiastic crowd.
In his opening remarks, the host, actor John Lithgow, called the program "a tribute to a great national treasure, American music." That meant mostly the pop side of the musical spectrum, of course, since this event was nationally broadcast and nothing too classical would likely have been approved.
Still, it was good to see the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Marin Alsop with her usual aplomb, on this high-profile occasion providing the musical foundation for the evening. The ensemble backed most of the stars, including Smokey Robinson, Kenny Rogers and Melissa Etheridge. The amplification did the orchestra no favors, though; such venues never do.
Too bad the BSO's single showpiece in the program, the sparkling overture to Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," only got a few measures of air time.
TV viewers of this "Great Performances" presentation on PBS (a production of Maryland Public Television, New York's WNET and others) saw a sudden break-away to proceedings at Fort McHenry, where the broadcast's co-host Jordin Sparks spent most of her time. A voice-over from that event could be heard over loudspeakers briefly and annoyingly back at Pier Six, as Alsop and the orchestra were charging ahead in the Bernstein overture.
It wasn't the worst miscue of the night. That came at the end, when fireworks erupted well before the intended concert cue, which meant that deafening bombs burst in air and a lot of the Pier Six audience rushed out to get a look while stellar mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves-Montgomery was doing her eloquent best with "America the Beautiful."
Speaking of distraction, there was a lot of ambient noise during the concert, chiefly from nearby revelers in the Inner Harbor, but it was easy enough to tune out during the best moments in the program.
Those highlights started with a fervent account of "Make Our Garden Grow" from "Candide" sung by Broadway's Kristin Chenoweth and operatic baritone Paulo Szot, beautifully shaped by Alsop and given vibrant support from the BSO and Navy Sea Chanters.
Chenoweth also delivered a disappointing, overblown version "Till There Was You" from Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." The BSO, however, did lovely backing in that number, as it did for Graves-Montgomery in her golden singing of George Gershwin's "Summertime."
Etheridge sounded hoarse, but effective, in her numbers, especially a new song, "Take My Number," that offered strongly evocative lyrics and a potent melodic hook. Another new item, Rogers' "'Merica," a corny-cute salute to the nation's variety, had a certain charm, but did not quite measure up to Lithgow's suggestion that it "just might become an American classic."
Robinson, who received a hero's welcome, led a sing-along of "The Tracks of My Tears" at a rather draggy tempo. The vocal ensemble Pentatonix crooned innocuously.
On a second stage at the opposite end of the venue, the country group Little Big Town did energetic work and the rock band Train kicked up enough energy to distract from frontman Pat Monahan's strained vocals.
There was no need to have even the severely abbreviated version of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" played by the BSO. There has to be at least one fireworks-backed patriotic occasion in America that doesn't involve a celebration of czarist Russia.
On a brighter note, it was cool to see famed Orioles Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer providing some of the narration about the Battle of Baltimore that was woven through the program. Given last week's news from Baltimore sports teams, I think their presence was doubly appreciated by the audience.