By CLIFTON J. NOBLE JR.
SPRINGFIELD – There’s a little gravel in his fifties falsetto, but Don McLean can still sing with the youthful passion of the idealistic romantic who penned “American Pie,” “Vincent” and “Empty Chairs,” and wanted to make albums and change the world.
Armed with his bright-toned six-string and backed by a four-piece core band, McLean joined the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in the final concert of its 2006-07 Pops season Saturday evening, turning back the clock for an audience of 2,468 to a time when, as he noted, the songs you heard on the radio had things like melodies and chord changes. In fact, after a tender journey through his early hit “And I Love You So,” McLean quipped “I can’t see (rapper) 50 Cent taking a shot at that last one.”
Kicking off the music with “Everyday,” made famous by the great Buddy Holly, whose passing he would mark with Homeric eloquence and scale in his greatest hit, “American Pie,” McLean took us on a tour of his career from 1969 when he recorded his debut album “Tapestry” to 2005’s “Rearview Mirror” with its gritty, rocking pavane for a dead princess, “Run, Diana, Run.”
McLean presented an eclectic mix of his own compositions, from the chart-topping “Castles in the Air,” “American Pie” and “Vincent” to the bitterly wistful “Superman’s Ghost,” which first appeared on a 1986 Greatest Hits album and the unabashedly silly “La La Love You” from 1974’s “Homeless Brother.”
Among other songwriters’ efforts to which McLean applied his distinctive vocal gifts were the Roy Orbison/Joe Melson classic “Crying” (which Orbison later re-recorded with K.D. Lang in the style of McLean’s version), “I Could Write A Book” from the Richard Rodgers show “Pal Joey,” and rarities like Michael Brewer’s cheery country-twanging “Love In My Heart” (top 10 in Australia) from 1987’s “Love Tracks” album.
McLean has obviously taken good care of his voice over the decades. His impressive range (a good two octaves plus a fourth on Saturday) and effortless phrasing, sure sense of pitch and tasteful elaborations and reinflections of his familiar melodies bore all the hallmarks of a performer for whom touching his audience is still of paramount importance.
One of the evening’s highlights was his introspective account of “Crossroads” from the “American Pie” album, supported only by the elegant, understated piano-playing of music director Tony Migliore.
In addition to the talents of Migliore (pianist, conductor, arranger, etc.), McLean was fortunate to have the extraordinary Ralph Childs on bass guitar, a nimble, melodic player whose keen sense of harmonic underpinning and instinctive understanding of his role turned good folk music into great chamber music. Guitarist Pat Severs and drummer Jerry Kroon rounded out the band.
Full orchestra miking made for a workable balance among band, orchestra and voices (Childs added high harmonies to McLean’s lead on several numbers), but the orchestral portions of McLean’s half of the concert that were most effective were intermittent solos and small ensembles, like the English horn counterpoint in “And I Love You So” and the moaning trombone chorale beneath the last verse of “American Pie.”
On the concert’s first half, the orchestra got its chance to really shine, albeit briefly, in three numbers smartly conducted by Wilbraham native Joan Landry. Landry, currently Assistant Conductor of the North Carolina Symphony, said she last appeared on the Springfield Symphony Hall stage some 20 years ago as a French horn player in the Young Peoples Symphony. She expressed her delight and gratitude in returning to the venerable hall to stand on its podium.
Landry launched the evening with Glinka’s bubbly Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmilla,” continued with a medley of numbers from the Cy Coleman show “Sweet Charity,” centering on the show-stopping “Hey Big Spender,” and concluded with Leroy Anderson’s vivacious waltz “Belle of the Ball.” No doubt working under the pressure of precious little rehearsal time, Landry made the most of her role as opener, urging her musical colleagues with economical, yet energetic and meaningful gestures.
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