It should come as no surprise to anyone that Seth MacFarlane, now three albums and two Grammy nominations into his singing career, is completely sincere in his love of the Great American Songbook. Perhaps that’s because the creator and star of “Family Guy” and “Ted,” who will perform with the Boston Pops for opening night May 6, grew up with examples of comedy that treated music seriously.
“That’s something that goes all the way back to Monty Python,” says MacFarlane. “I remember watching ‘The Meaning Of Life’ when I was 13 and just being astonished at how involved the musical numbers were. There’s a big production number about sperm that is fully orchestrated, fully choreographed, and winds up with a cast of about 100 dancers, and they’re not [expletive] around. They’re treating this like it’s legit.”
MacFarlane will pay the Boston Pops the same courtesy — and vice versa — when they perform together at Symphony Hall. (The May 6 concert is sold out, but tickets are still available for a July 10 repeat performance at Tanglewood.) His aim remains to deliver arrangements by Nelson Riddle, without any punch lines. “It’s not something that wants any jokes,” he says. “It’s just a beautiful orchestration that is just meant to be played that way.”
Q. Growing up in New England, you saw the Boston Pops a number of times. What do you remember about those concerts?
A. I was a big John Williams fan. That’s what got me there in the first place. I loved film music, I loved orchestras, and as a child I just remember that that was such an exciting thing, to hear all that film music played live with the orchestra. And Tanglewood is where I saw the Boston Pops perform for the first time, so it was an outdoor concert. That was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that, and to have that experience with a hundred-piece orchestra is exciting.
Q. Have you had a hand in selecting which particular arrangements you’ll be doing?
A. Yeah, all that stuff I select, and then obviously I submit it for approval to the orchestra. Generally, I’ve never had any problems with an orchestra saying, “No, we don’t want to do this,” because I do pick stuff that’s going to show off the orchestra. When you have a hundred players up there, or something around that, you want to use them. That’s the beauty of those Sinatra recordings to me. He would be the first one to tell you that he is one-quarter of that sound. There’s the vocalist, there’s the lyricist, the composer, and then the orchestra-slash-orchestrations. So it’s as much a show about that as it is about the songs themselves.
[For] orchestrations I can’t find, I have a guy in London named Andrew Cottee, who is unbelievably versed in this music and has an extraordinary ear and is able to reconstruct the arrangements that have been lost — and the sad thing is that a lot of them have been lost. A lot of the old MGM arrangements that you can only hear on mono recordings, the actual paper is gone. They tossed it to put in a parking lot or whatnot, because they were cranking that stuff out all the time and didn’t have any sense of how good and how precious it was and how hard it would be to re-create it 60 years down the line. But he’s able to reconstruct this stuff to the point at which it’s impossible to tell that anything’s missing. He’s just got an extraordinary ear. And nothing is missing. I scrutinize these old recordings ruthlessly because I’m obsessed with them, and he’s done a phenomenal job of reconstructing these things.
To hear charts like this played live when you’re used to hearing them on an old, squeezed recording, it’s just a sound that you don’t get to experience. And obviously, the Boston Pops does exactly this kind of thing like gangbusters. They’re just phenomenal.
Q. Among the many things that they do well, they’re a top-notch swing orchestra.
A. Yeah, which is rare. The strings in all of these symphony orchestras are magnificent and the woodwinds are generally magnificent, but the brass is always where you hold your breath a little bit, because they’re not swing players, they’re classical players. A lot of them are up for it, which is great. They’re up for the challenge and they bring everything they can, but it varies from orchestra to orchestra. But the Boston Pops does have all of that sewn up. For an orchestra that size to be able to swing like that is pretty extraordinary, but they know what they’re doing.
Q. You’re playing opening night with the Pops this year. What kind of pressure comes with that? Are you worried that if you screw it up, you’ve tanked the entire spring season?
A. [laughs] I think they’ll be fine. The nice thing is, I’ve now done a version of this show probably 20 times, so it’s very comfortable. We’ve had a chance to really polish it and figure out what works. . . . At this point, it’s very relaxed, it’s fun. I have yet to have an experience with an orchestra, with this kind of show, that’s not great.
SETH MACFARLANE WITH THE BOSTON POPS
At Symphony Hall, May 1. Sold out. At Tanglewood, Lenox, July 10 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $22-$124. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org
Interview was edited and condensed. Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.