As the old saying goes, when the cat’s away, the mice will play music that looks upward beyond the bounds of our fragile, curious planet. So it was Friday at Symphony Hall, when the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sarah Hicks stood in for Keith Lockhart to conduct the Boston Pops on the first of two nights devoted to our fascination with the stars. One can only presume that Lockhart’s not a rabid “Star Trek” fan; it would be hard otherwise to imagine him handing over the baton for a program featuring Leonard Nimoy.
Despite his short-lived, oddball career as a recording artist, Nimoy was on hand purely as a host, not a performer. With a twinkle in his eye, he read sometimes portentous, sometimes punny introductions peppered with plenty of corny “Star Trek” jokes. “It’s good to be home, and I don’t mean Vulcan,” the Boston-born actor said at the outset.
A Pops program devoted to space would be negligent without selections by John Williams, and the laureate conductor featured heavily, with selections from “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and the “Star Wars” films. But Nimoy’s bread and butter was represented as well, with Alexander Courage’s horn-forward, eyes-to-the-heavens “Star Trek” theme appearing not once but twice.
The same sense of cosmic questing could be heard in the stately trumpet volleys of Holst’s “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” while the martial charge of “Mars, the Bringer of War” made the accompanying footage of NASA’s Mars rover seem bellicose, as though Curiosity were the advance scout for an impending assault on the Red Planet. Debussy’s yearning “Clair de lune” rippled with romance, though Strauss’s “On The Beautiful Blue Danube” was marred by periodic squeaks of mild feedback.
Unlike Lockhart’s fluid coaxing, Hicks enthusiastically entreated the orchestra, her forearms making wide, choppy sweeps that followed the turns of the music as well as led them. She eschewed the usual encore of “The Stars And Stripes Forever” for the skewed Cotton Club swing of “Cantina Band” from “Star Wars,” knowing that if you must defy the current Pops conductor, it helps to enlist his predecessor.Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc.