This year’s Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular represented a rebirth of sorts for the long-running, city-beloved concert: It had new presenting sponsors and a new TV home, as well as a renewed focus on tradition. In keeping with that mandate, Tuesday night’s Independence Day show put the twinned histories of the United States and Boston front and center, with a repertoire that paired a wide-lens view of American popular music with gentle reminders of the hope for a better world that still animates this country’s best ideas and exports.
Celebratory standards like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” were on the bill as expected, their triumphant melodies soaring over the pleasantly warm evening. But the night also included thematically appropriate selections composed by Pops laureate conductor John Williams (from “The Patriot” and the 1986 Statue of Liberty centenary), songs from recent musicals like “Hamilton,” the debut of a new song about America’s melting-pot ethos penned by “Little Shop of Horrors” composer Alan Menken, and an orchestral rework of the Dropkick Murphys’ rallying cry “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” as well as folk-tinged pop hits by belter Melissa Etheridge and down-home bro Andy Grammer. And the night’s first firework display came during a singalong to Bon Jovi’s 1986 strivers’ anthem “Livin’ On a Prayer,” part of an audience-participation medley adapted from the Pops’ shows at Symphony Hall.
The concert opened with Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose commanding baritone turned “America the Beautiful” into a near-hymn; that segued into “Wheels of a Dream,” a selection from the mid-’90s musical “Ragtime” that outlines a man’s hopes for a better life for his child. Mitchell came back at the show’s end to premiere Menken’s “The Sum of Us,” an optimistically patriotic twist on the megaballads the composer wrote for such Disney musicals as “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” in the ’90s. Leslie Odom Jr., fresh off a stint with the Pops last month, showed off his subtle yet powerful voice on “Wait For It,” the “Hamilton” song that he said “changed [his] life.” His version of “Without You,” from the 1990s musical “Rent,” slowly built from a spare R&B ballad into an emotional roar, neatly displaying the still-continuing conversation between Broadway and the pop world.
Etheridge, who will return for a fuller show with the Pops this September, blasted through the pleading “Come to My Window” and the bluesy “Bring Me Some Water,” her passionate rasp providing a neat contrast to the Pops’ string flourishes and woodwind counterpoints. Grammer’s good-time pop-rock gets a big boost from his aw-shucks charm and acrobatic voice, and his bashful “Cotton Eye Joe” update “Honey, I’m Good” got the audience two-stepping near the show’s end.
Conductor Keith Lockhart and the Pops kept the show moving briskly, no small feat when the wrench of television is thrown into a concert setting. Singalongs to “Sweet Caroline” and patriotic tunes focused the audience, while the tributes to Williams connected the dots between the past and the present. At the end of the evening, the Pops brought the night home with rousing, pyrotechnic-assisted performances of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” — a triumphant end to a show that represented a confident first step into the future.
Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular
With Melissa Etheridge, Andy Grammer, Leslie Odom Jr., Brian Stokes Mitchell, and the US Army Field Band and Soldiers’ Chorus. At Hatch Memorial Shell, TuesdayMaura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.