Melissa Etheridge had been here before, but on the outside looking in. In 1979, when the rootsy rocker lived in Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, she used to pass by Symphony Hall like any other undergrad living in a nearby dorm: with a slice of pizza and some doughnuts from the corner 7-Eleven.
When she came back Thursday, for the first of two nights performing with the Boston Pops, she fondly recalled those memories and assured the crowd that the relevance of her return to the hallowed hall was not lost on her.
“You are in the midst of a dream come true,” she said.
It was an evening of several firsts, in fact. Etheridge had never played with a major orchestra or even stepped inside Symphony Hall. She headlined the inaugural Berklee Night at the Pops, whose first portion highlighted some of the school’s talent, not to mention the Pops’ dexterity in a program of vast range and feeling under conductor Keith Lockhart’s watchful eye.
Etheridge kept her set short and sweet — six songs, no encore — but they were true to her reputation for being a passionate and invested storyteller. On acoustic guitar, she howled the refrain of “I Want to Come Over” and eased into “You Can Sleep While I Drive” as if relaying a private love letter instead of a song.
The Pops added little flights of fancy, and the interplay between them was particularly pronounced on “Come to My Window.” Together they gave the chorus some extra oomph; when Etheridge roared, “I don’t care what they think,” the Pops echoed her with an instrumental thud of dun-dun-dun.
A technical quibble: Etheridge’s voice was so soft, while singing and especially when speaking, that you often wondered if the sound mix was off or if she was keeping some of her vocal pyrotechnics in the reserve. It diminished an otherwise robust performance.
From Berklee, a handful of students who had won a competition represented its various shades, from the swing and sway of jazz singer Sarah McKenzie’s “That’s It, I Quit!” to Ahmad El Haggar’s meditative ballad “Mawal El Kurum” (“The Grapevine Hymn”), sung in Arabic.
Lockhart and the Pops got to flex some muscle, too. Their highly syncopated and percussive interpretation of “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” Dave Brubeck’s jazz standard, was an elegant flip side to the build and climactic release of “Stairway to Heaven,” the classic-rock staple by Led Zeppelin.
Lifting a line from one of his predecessors, Arthur Fiedler, Lockhart noted that if a common thread united the Pops and Berklee, it was their shared mission statement. They’re both devoted to just one kind of music: the interesting kind.