You wouldn’t think that improvisation would be an orchestra’s forte. But when Audra McDonald had to cancel her Boston Pops performances due to a schedule conflict, fellow Broadway veteran Sutton Foster stepped in with two weeks to spare, only to bow out because of laryngitis this week. So when the Pops welcomed Tony nominee Michael Cavanaugh to Symphony Hall on Tuesday night, it was the third program it had to prepare at the last minute.
But the Pops is nothing if not versatile, shifting effortlessly from the tintinnabulation of “Sound The Bells!” to George Enescu’s stormy (though not dark) “Romanian Rhapsody In A major” to “You Make Me Feel So Young,” where the Pops became a lush dance orchestra. The Enescu piece formed the heart of the segment, led by gentle winds before the strings added a soft, hearty lift and occasional undertow.
The winners of the Fidelity Investments Young Artists Competition broadened the Pops’ range even further. Annie Ma, Amy Wang, and Shirley Wu played guzheng, a sort of Chinese dulcimer, with the orchestra tastefully coloring the watery and lovely “Fisherman’s Song” behind them. Katie Scholl delicately held forth with a round tone on Mozart’s “Flute Concerto No. 1,” though the orchestra overpowered Joe Weydt’s overearnest original “Buy Me.”
Late in his own set, Cavanaugh introduced “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by saying “This song is very special, I would say the biggest song that Paul Simon’s ever written.” The choice of adjective was telling: not “best,” but “biggest.” And Cavanaugh’s performance suggested that his material’s power lies in its popularity, rather than vice versa. Less interpreter than evangelizer, he seemed to pay most attention to the audience’s reaction.
Even so, the orchestral backing to Cavanaugh’s acoustic guitar on “Blackbird” was sympathetic and unforced, and the strings rippling in counterpoint to “The Sound Of Silence” were the blood gushing underneath. The Pops found ways to shine regardless of preparation time.
(Cavanaugh repeats Wednesday, though the Fidelity winners will be replaced by John Hodgman narrating Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.”)
THE BOSTON POPS: THE GREAT SINGER SONGWRITERS
With Michael Cavanaugh
At: Symphony Hall, Tuesday
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com.