The Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular might have had an agenda this year.
“We are joined by a line-up of guest stars who are all women, and who reflect the wonderful diversity of this land,” read a note from Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart in the program.
That’s the mild, apolitical way of describing it.
That lineup began with Rachel Platten, the Newton-raised singer/songwriter whose milquetoast self-empowerment anthem “Fight Song” became synonymous with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She duly delivered breathy feel-good ditties; the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra was relegated to backing-band status, but added lushness.
Your lesbian aunt’s favorite band, the Indigo Girls, was there. The sound mix during their turn onstage amplified their weathered voices into stridency, but nevertheless their joy was contagious and their harmonies as stirring as ever.
Speaking of contagious joy, there was living legend Rita Moreno! At 86 years young she can’t hold those notes like she used to, but her charisma has not dimmed one watt. Sparkling in silver, she graced the crowd with a bilingual “Somewhere.”Then she revisited her “West Side Story” role as Anita with a spirited rendition of “America,” opposite Broadway actress and fellow Anita veteran Natalie Cortez, and a small cadre of women from the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Moreno informed the crowd that she had instructed the TFC singers to be “rowdy,” but they seemed to have missed the memo.
For rowdy, try that cheer the audience let out when Moreno cried “Puerto Rico’s in America.” Or Moreno’s clarion declamation of “The New Colossus,” the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, over an excerpt from Peter Boyer’s swelling “Ellis Island: The Dream of America.” Now that was a show to remember, and an assertion of pride that took on additional resonance in light of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant sentiments and policies.
So was the barnstorming set by MacArthur “genius grant” honoree and multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, of Grammy-winning black string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. She opened the show itself with two songs recorded by proto-rock ’n’ roller Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whom she namechecked in her post-set interview. Later with the Pops, her string-laced cover of Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” would have made Etta James fly down from heaven to hear it. It certainly gave Giddens an Esplanade full of new fans.
She then picked up a fiddle and ripped into a reel, and the orchestral heft of the Pops gave the music the Aaron Copland treatment. She moved aside to dance barefoot while fellow Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins clicked his bones into her microphone. “It’s got a little bit of Appalachia, a little bit of Ireland, and a little bit of West Africa. You know, America,” she said of the final song. The Indigo Girls and Moreno were legacy acts, but Giddens is the present day, and if Lockhart doesn’t bring her back for a full evening with the Pops, we’re getting robbed.
For all its rich moments, the show was very stop and go. This is the Spectacular’s second year in partnership with Eaton Vance and Bloomberg, and the runtime was padded with video features about Boston, only some of which felt vaguely relevant.
Everyone probably would have rather heard more music. Besides the perennial “1812” Overture, replete with bells and roaring cannons, the orchestra performed only a few light pieces, the Mambo from “West Side Story,” the yearly salute to veterans, and patriotic tunes for the sing-along.
Among those selections were “America the Beautiful,” with words by Wellesley College professor Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), whose other work includes an ardent book of love poems to her longtime partner Katharine Coman. And “God Bless America,” the work of a man born Israel Beilin, who with his family fled gang violence — excuse me, pogroms — and boarded a ship to seek a better life. American music has always reflected the diversity of this land, and so will it always.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.