As guests arrived in their New Year’s Eve finery and proceeded to don shiny party hats and toot noisemakers, one thing became immediately obvious: The Granada makes an ideal venue for a sophisticated and festive pops concert. With its elegant lobby and balcony-level founders’ room spaces, there’s plenty of room for people to gather and enjoy one another’s company before making their way into the hall, and that’s exactly what the diverse and happy crowd did this past Saturday night. Guest Conductor Robert Bernhardt has mastered the light humor and verbal hijinks associated with such evenings, and soprano Mela Dailey made a glamorous counterpoint to Bernhardt’s free flow of puns and witticisms. The first three selections were all from Johann Strauss Jr., the uncontested master of the waltz. In this, the Santa Barbara Symphony followed in the path of the Vienna Philharmonic, which has played a New Year’s concert on January 1 of every year since 1939 that is always packed with music by the Strauss clan. Under the baton of Bernhardt, the symphony made a fine showing on this portion of the program, especially the Emperor Waltz, which is at least as irresistible as the more familiar Blue Danube.
Dailey has a great voice and a warm presence that came out most strongly in the three opera selections included in the first half of the program. She sang “Mein Herr Marquis” from Strauss’s opera Die Fledermaus, “Vilja” from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, and “Brindisi” from Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata. “Brindisi” is a toasting song, and for comedic effect, a tuxedoed waiter came onstage to serve Dailey a glass of Champagne.
One of several delightful surprises came when S.B. Symphony boardmember Brett C. Moore was invited to the podium as guest conductor for Leroy Anderson’s charming and nostalgic “Blue Tango.” Maestro Bernhardt returned for Anderson’s “Belle of the Ball” and then took the energy level up a notch with a fun and funky take on the Brazilian kitsch classic “Tico-Tico.” The first half of the program ended with the night’s most interesting music lesson, which came in the form of a suite from the film It’s a Wonderful Life by the amazingly talented and versatile Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin. The subtlety and elegance with which this suite wove together the melodies of several Christmas carols with the New Year’s Eve staple “Auld Lang Syne” had everyone in the spirit in time for intermission.
One’s enthusiasm for the second half of the evening depended to a large extent on how fully one shared the conductor’s admiration for the composer John Williams. Clearly, most of the audience was on board with such selections as the “Flight to Neverland” from Hook and “The Olympic Spirit” from the 1988 Olympiad in Seoul. Apart from the Williams and “All I Ask of You,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, the standouts during the second half were Jerome Kern’s gorgeous “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat, and a genuinely thrilling “Ellington Fantasy” arranged by Bernard Herrmann, which includes many of the composer’s greatest melodies, from “Caravan” to “Sophisticated Lady.” For sophisticates of all genders, ages, and dispositions, the Santa Barbara Symphony’s Pops Concert was a great jump start to 2012.