Popping the Lid Off: The Kamela Philharmonic Pops Concert

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A Symphony Orchestra playing popular music?  Aren’t they too up-tight for that?  Well, the Kamuela Philharmonic popped the lid right off in its first official “Pops” concert!

While billed a “first,” many of us remember fondly a previous concert they performed at the Hapuna Prince as being deliciously full of “pop.” Maestro Brian Dollinger referred to the example of the Boston Pops as his model for this performance. Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops, said they play selections “appealing to the widest possible audience with a broad spectrum of styles, from jazz to pop, indie rock to big band, film music to the great American songbook, Broadway to classical, making it the perfect orchestra for people who don’t know they like orchestras!” That sums up the repertoire and the motive for the Kamuela Phil as well.

Maestro Dollinger

This show was marked by informality, spontaneity, humor, and a breakdown of the barrier between performers and audience. Dollinger prefaced most of the pieces with remarks that helped us better understand what we were hearing, noting that there is not a wide gulf between the classical music of past centuries and popular music today.  Both use similar techniques such as associating a theme with a character whether in an opera or a movie (Star Wars), musical descriptions of landscapes and events (Dances with Wolves), dramatic and emotional arias/solos (Music of MGM).  Originally, the Boston Pops was what the Boston Symphony did in its off-season, a tradition that began 134 years ago.

In attempting to turn audience into performers, Dollinger tried in vain to coax and shame us onto the dance floor for Leroy Anderson’s Blue Tango, alas, to no avail. Since this concert was partly about getting us to explore music we don’t know, I feel in tune with that spirit by encouraging you to listen to more Anderson pieces, many of which were introduced by the Boston Pops. In high school I accompanied my first boyfriend in Bugler’s Holiday so I’m nostalgic about that one, and in The Typewriter, the sound of the return, unknown to many younger people today, punctuates the phrases. It’s LOL.

A number of the pieces selected were by composers we know, such as Henry Mancini, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, but the selections were compilations arranged by others whose names are not familiar; it made me appreciate the skill of the arranger who must make musically logical transitions between songs, and capture the original sound and spirit, as Calvin Custer does in Salute to Big Bands, or Greg Gilpin in Music of MGM. It was fitting to include John Williams Star Wars in the program,given that Williams was also the conductor of the Boston Pops for 13 years.

Orchestra members were enjoying themselves, which contributed to our fun. The tempos were lively but not rushed, giving a feeling of spaciousness. The trumpet and horns were magnificent, particularly in Dances with Wolves; the percussion section, with an overflowing toy chest of instruments, was literally running from one marimba to the other. By the time we got to the Cole Porter in the second half, I was saying to myself, “More cow bell!”

The Hilton is not usually set up for music, so unfortunately, the wonderful singers, Beth Dunnington and Kat Reuss, were at times overshadowed by the orchestra. They are both strong singers so I know it was the sound system, not them! They sang old favorites from the 1920’s to the 1990’s both in solo and as a duet.  Beth’s voice has richness and depth especially in the lower registers; Kat has a wonderful vibrato and reaches the high register with ease and full control as she varied the dynamics in a single held note. Kat, who is a natural actor, livened up her performances with gestures that acted out the words of the songs – and Maestro Dollinger joined in by turning from the podium to give her a hug during “Embraceable You.” She seemed to have to hold herself back from going into full Broadway mode – and we hope to see her again in that mode soon! But her “My Funny Valentine” was sung with subtlety and simplicity, almost reverentially.  Beth’s last song, Moon River, was also chicken skin, delivered with a wistful mixture of solitude and hope.

With many in the audience new to the Kamuela Philharmonic, this performance cannot help but garner them many new fans.  We hope that the Pops concert will become a yearly tradition – maybe for the next 134 years!


Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Photos: Steve Roby

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