After a snarky public feud between Peter Nero and the administrative board of his own orchestra concerning the renewal of his contract, the legendary pianist-conductor is exiting next year. Meanwhile, Nero was unceremoniously business kicking off his 34th season like he always is; he was his droll self, editorializing about the nastiness of the presidential ads and something about the TV show Shark Tank.
Meanwhile, the theme of the concert, "dancing and romancing," was a showcase for the song and dance team of Joan Hess and Kirby Ward, for a variety of dance musical numbers -- a little jarring in front of the orchestra. They vamped their way through Astaire-Rogers movie gems -- "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance" and the always-goofy "Carioca" -- with choreography plucked from the movies. The dancers were able to show their stuff as an interpretive team in the stronger tap numbers that had more musical purpose with the orchestra.
In between, Nero paid tribute to Marvin Hamlisch with a fine symphonic arrangement to A Chorus Line.
Also fine was first violinist Michael Ludwig's stellar solo for the John Williams arrangement of "Tango" used in the film Scent of a Woman.
Nero rather abruptly introduced Spanish guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, in his U.S. debut. Nero said it was a last-minute addition for this virtuoso, so he just did solo numbers. And, without doubt, Villegas' technical artistry was just hypnotic on numbers like "Granada," evoking the waters; his Turkish folk-guitar "journey," as he described it, displaying string clarity and purity of sound.
After intermission, the band opened with a rote wartime swing, "In the Mood," with the dancers marking steps to the Lindy Hop. But then Nero unleashed the POPS signature big-band sound with Basie's "Jumpin' at the Woodside" with just the meatiest brass around -- and Nero proved time and again that he knows what made Basie's band swing. And he has kept it alive with the POPS big-band bona-fides, which is an endangered species art form.
Then Nero finished with his own orchestration of a medley of a dozen Rodgers and Hart tunes from With a Song in My Heart, "Isn't it Romantic" to "Spring is Here." Nero was finally at the weighing in on piano, brilliantly during "You Took Advantage of Me," "Thou Swell" and "Lady Is a Tramp" backed with Gleason-esque strings. Nero also dug in with witty quotes from Rodgers with Hammerstein. Nero brought it home with piano counterpoint against the lush orchestration for "My Funny Valentine."