Southwest Florida Symphony honored America’s classical century, “Holiday Pops” next on Dec. 9-11

By Thomas Buckingham, Ph.D., with Laura Tichy

On Saturday, Nov. 4, Maestro Radu Paponiu and the Southwest Florida Symphony presented a rare program of classical standards and popular crowd-pleasers in the same show. The program, “American Classical,” followed a theme of the common man and featured four of the most well-known American composers of the last 100 years: Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and John Williams. Many concerts this season will follow this theme of offering wide-ranging music to appeal to both new and traditional symphony audiences, with the upcoming holiday pops concert taking a three-concert tour around the county on December 9-11.

Resisting the urge to order the works chronologically, Paponiu instead ordered the program according to musical evolution, from classical and ballet through jazz, which evolved as a hybridization of classical and blues, to jazz-inflected Broadway to the film score that introduced classical-style music to the broadest audiences imaginable. True to its theme, the concert began with Copland’s explosive “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which included bold interpretations from the percussion and brass members of the orchestra. The audience greeted its conclusion with rousing applause.

This was followed by another well-loved Copland gem: “Four Dance Episodes from ‘Rodeo.” Originally commissioned as an Agnes de Mille ballet accompaniment, this music has taken on its own life these last 80 years, having been featured in countless movies and television spots because its iconic western themes evoke images of the American frontier. Playing such familiar pieces live presents challenges because audience members know every note and key change and will be listening with particular attention to every detail. The orchestra and maestro delivered with energy and precision throughout the suite, and the listeners responded with enthusiasm.

Regarding Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Paponiu explained in the pre-concert lecture that this season is the 100th anniversary for this ground-breaking, foundational composition that melded classical into the common man’s music of its era – jazz. Consequently, symphonies across America and the world would be featuring it in their seasonal line-up, but few would have the guest artists that the SWFLSO had the fortune to accompany: the Marcus Roberts Jazz Trio.

The performance foregrounded the trio, transforming the piece from the symphonic orchestration with jazz elements – as it has been codified over the years – back into a true jazz performance, with the pianist taking improvisational liberties throughout the canonical piano solo. It is touchy for such an iconic piece to be re-interpreted, but Gershwin originally composed it as a jazz experiment of modern music and included improvisation in the original performance. While “Rhapsody” purists may have been surprised, the crowd was overwhelmingly delighted with this fresh, new creation of a true American masterpiece, giving it a standing ovation and calling for encores. Normally, such a crowd reaction would come at the rousing finale of a concert, but this was only intermission.

Following the show-stopping take the jazz trio provided on Gershwin, the SWFLSO performed Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” While a symphonic reworking of the showtunes from the original musical, the piece fit with the jazz side of the evening’s program and brought elements of the common man theme both through the dance rhythms of the mambo and cha-cha movements as well as evoking the memory of the musical’s plot about the conflict between impoverished teen gangs. More than a Broadway pops piece, the intricate, demanding score challenged the orchestra to play their best and showcased the virtuosity of the musicians.

The concert concluded as it began – with a fanfare – as the brass section played the familiar opening notes of Williams’ “Star Wars’ Suite,” the score from the science-fiction film that told the tale of a common farm boy thrust into the role of hero. It provided a brilliant finish to a program that demanded much from the musicians. Tickets are available for the upcoming “Santa’s Serenade – Holiday Pops with Andrew Lipke” concerts, with performances on Saturday, Dec. 9 at Fort Myers Senior High School; Sunday, Dec. 10 at First Presbyterian Church of Bonita Springs; and Monday, Dec. 11 at The Village Church at Shell Point. The concert will feature a program of holiday music arranged by composer and guest multi-instrumentalist Andrew Lipke. SWFLSO is Lee County’s only professional symphony orchestra. Most performances take place at the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall at Florida Southwestern State College. Additional concerts run from January to May and feature music ranging from Beethoven and Brahms to The Beatles and Nirvana. For tickets and information, visit or call 239-418-1500.