“George, you’re orchestra is great!,” Rachael Worby, conductor of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra, enthused from the podium as the opening concert of the Pop’s summer season got under way at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada Flintridge last Saturday night. Worby was congratulating Jorge Mester, conductor of the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra, on the high level of musicianship he has established with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra suggesting that she is happy with the alliance that her Pops organization and the Pasadena Symphony Association carved last year, combing the two orchestras into one, but retaining both Pasadena Symphony’s Mester and the Pop’s Worby. It also indicates that the union effort to force the use of Pops contract players to play the summer season over regular Pasadena Symphony musicians has failed.
The undeniable truth is that the Pasadena Symphony musicians are among the most solid players in Southern California and at the Pops opening concert last Friday (and repeated on Saturday) was a clear demonstration of the superiority—with a few hold-over members—of this ensemble. Even though the program was not overly stretching for either the musicians or the audience, the sound was clear and flawless from start to finish. The sound system and the stage lighting was exceptional but that may be due to contractual agreements between the Orchestras of Pasadena, as the combined organization is now called, and the guest artist, Michael Martin Murphey, whose contract apparently is specific about such matters.
Each number performed had a Western theme. Under the banner “How the West was Sung”, Worby energetically led her group through representative music from films, Broadway, ballet and television. John Williams’ “Cowboys” overture was clean and sparkling, but Ennie Morricone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West”, the main title theme, lacked spirit even with Francisco Castillo’s outstanding English horn solo. Two offerings from Copland’s “Rodeo” ballet music seemed under-rehearsed as some of the off-beat rhythms were less than pristine. Alberto Ginastera’s “Estancia” ballet portion, though, glittered from start to finish. A suite of hit tunes from “Annie Get Your Gun” and the theme song from television’s “Bonzanza” received a good hearing. All this was performed with a temperature that was 104 degrees at the start of the concert. Moreover, notable blasts of hot air wafted through the open lawn of Descanso Gardens from time to time. Male orchestra members were encouraged to remove their jackets by Worby, a suggestion that was welcomed under the hot stage lighting and the extra warm temperatures.Michael Martin Murphey brought a tear to the eye and a lump in the throat with his cowboy ballads last Saturday where he appeared as guest artist with the Pasadena POPS at Descanso Gardens. Murphey is seen with fiddler David Coe, a member of the Rio Grande Band that backs the singer.
Michael Martin Murphey fit right in with the warm evening as he sang songs of the old West along with the backing of his team Paul Sadler III, lead guitar and harmony vocals, David Coe, fiddle and flat-iron mandolin, and Gary Roller, bass guitar and harmony vocals. Back-up musicians appeared as The Rio Grande Band.
Murphey brings a load of talent to his act as lonesome cowboy. He is a fine singer who delivers lyrics with feeling and clarity that allows listeners to capture the essence of the Western wide-open spaces. He also pitches his talk-songs with an unusual balance of emotion and beat. “Cowboy Logic” was terrific. But, then, so was just about everything he and his group did. The sensitive backing by the Pops orchestra made this tribute to the West special. In addition to his musical recitations and songs his versions of Western standards were nostalgic standouts. He performed “Old Chisholm Trail,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Ballad of Billy the Kid,” “The Streets of Laredo,” and encored with “Happy Trails”. In my book, that leaves only “Cool Water” as just about the only old-time cowpoke song not presented. Murphey bills himself as “America’s Singing Cowboy Poet”. A native Texan, he comes to the title by birthright as his parents migrated from North Carolina in 1858 to Texas. He has produced hit songs “Carolina in the Pines” and “Wildfire” and claims several awards from gold album to the Golden Smoky Award from the Department of Interior for his tireless work in conservation and wildlands fire awareness.
The Orchestras of Pasadena, as the newly minted consortium is now called, consists of the Pasadena Symphony, the Pasadena Pops, and the Pasadena Youth Orchestra. In addition to the POPS series at Descanso Gardens, OofP will present a chamber music series beginning Sunday, June 29 at the Manchester Boddy house at Descanso.
The next POPS concert will be held Friday, Saturday and Sunday, July 18, 19 and 20 when, under the theme, “In the Heat of the Night,” guest artist Nmon Ford, baritone, and Steve and Sekou Tha Misfit bring the music of Mozart, the Beatles, Cole Porter and Quincy Jones. For information, please call (626) 793-7172, ext. 38.
Photos and Text By Bill Peters